Interesting times again

I’m late today. I’m so late today that it’s lunchtime tomorrow in my part of Australia.

My excuse is a very interesting 24 hours. How can so many things go wrong in that time? I shall save you from a list, but the most visually dramatic was when I shattered half a dozen glasses, a small stack of bowls, and maybe a couple of other things. The count is approximate, because dealing with a lounge room full of shattered glass was more important than seeing what was left. Only two things I really cared about are gone. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that this post is short because I still have to pick up pieces from most of the things that went wrong. I’ve sorted two, and the glass is almost cleared into a bag, waiting for someone to help me farewell it. The rubbish bins in my block of flats are not made for someone with my particular incapacities. At times like this, I feel aggrieved about it!

I will read something to improve my day, but it won’t be a calming book. I am re-reading Peadar Ó Guilín’s duology (The Call, The Invasion). They’re such good books that I would re-read them even if it wasn’t work-related. I’m in the happy position that doing a close re-read will advance my research and remind me that the last 24 hours has been interesting, but is nothing on children being kidnapped by otherworldly beings and, if they survive, returning… changed. Nothing like apocalyptic YA books for reminding me that life is really not that bad.

The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

Getting Out of Town

Getting out in nature is supposed to be good for your health. The Japanese even came up with a name for it: Forest Bathing. The most recent issue of New Scientist discusses another aspect: the importance of water — as in rivers, lakes, and oceans — to human well-being.

We just spent several days at Salt Point State Park, which is up Highway 1 about eighty miles north of San Francisco. Our campsite was in the tress — including some redwoods — but the trail to the ocean was less than a mile long. So we spent lots of time surrounded by trees and staring out at the ocean.

Not, I hasten to add, swimming in the ocean. After you watch the waves crash into the rocks, you begin to understand all the warnings about staying out of the water.

I took a few pictures while we hiked around. My favorite one has nothing to do with the ocean, except that I took it on the steps of the visitor center for Salt Point.

swallow feeding young

I was focused on the baby birds. The swallow landing to feed them happened just as I snapped the shot. I didn’t actually see the parent bird until I looked at the picture.

Ravens are also common in this part of California. They’re quite a bit larger than their cousins the crows who live in our neighborhood. I noticed that a raven does a loud call at dawn, similar to the ones crows do around here. It might have been this one, which we saw at Gerstle Cove, which is the ocean part of Salt Point State Park.

raven in tree

As for the ocean itself: Who came up with that name? There is nothing pacifying about the Pacific Ocean. Even on a calm day with not a storm in sight, the waves crash ferociously onto the rocks along the coast. I tried to catch one of the really large ones with my camera, but alas, I didn’t have the luck I had with the swallows. So here is a picture of it looking deceptively mild:

Pacific Ocean at Gerstle Cove

Continue reading “Getting Out of Town”

On Talent

You don’t have to be good.

I don’t mean virtuous here. I do think it’s important for all of us to do the best we can to be that kind of good..

What I’m talking about is talent and ability and the idea that we can’t do things because we’re not good at them.

Of course we can do them. And we can keep doing them even if we never get “good” enough to be a superstar.

I’ll start with self defense. Far too many people — particularly, but not exclusively, women — believe they can’t defend themselves, can’t fight back.

And it’s not true. Everyone can learn some self defense skills. They’re not particularly difficult or complicated.

The best part: you don’t have to be good. If you’re ever actually attacked, a couple of quick strikes and running like hell will serve you very well.

I know, because I’ve done it, and believe me, at the time I was very far from good.

The best part is that learning some skills like that gives you the confidence to stand up for yourself in the more common struggles of life, the ones that involve words and insults and gaslighting.

Knowing that you can fight if you have to means you aren’t likely to have to fight.

Knowing that you don’t have to be the super hero (which only happens in the movies anyway) or even a black belt makes that even easier.

But this applies to more than self defense.  Continue reading “On Talent”

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

Uncomfortable in Your Comfort Zone

Nobody wants to be uncomfortable. If we all had our druthers, everything would feel just right all the time.

That, of course, is not possible. It wouldn’t be possible in utopia, assuming humans ever manage to develop a utopia. Even in a world where things are fair and systems work, people will still misunderstand each other or fall in love with someone who doesn’t love them back or disagree on the best way to deal with a problem.

Besides, even if we manage to survive and thrive and shift things so that climate change doesn’t do too much harm, the weather’s still going to be awful a good bit of the time.

Plus people are still going to get sick and die. We may figure out how to live longer, but I don’t think immortality is in the cards.

We’re nowhere near utopia at this point, so there’s a lot of discomfort in our world.

Of course, there are things so awful that the word discomfort lacks all meaning: war, other violence, disasters, hunger, brutal authoritarian governments, a whole raft of diseases that could be treated or prevented, but aren’t.

Some of those awful things are happening to people nearby. People are living on the streets – pitching tents on a concrete sidewalk – because they have no place to live. They are sick but can’t afford to go to the doctor. Their kids don’t have enough to eat.

They are worse than uncomfortable, but their presence should make those of us who are getting by very uncomfortable. Continue reading “Uncomfortable in Your Comfort Zone”

Rethinking All the Rules

On the first day of our constitutional law class, a hundred or so of us assembled in a large classroom set up something like a theater, with two long rows of steps down to the platform and podium used by the teacher. It was the beginning of the second semester of our first year and we had survived thus far, so we were cocky enough to be talking noisily.

Then the professor came in: Charles Alan Wright, whose name graced various textbooks, who argued regularly before the Supreme Court, and who was particularly noted at the University of Texas law school for coaching the aggressive intramural football team the Legal Eagles. By the time he reached the front of the room, you could have heard a pin drop.

He looked around at us and then said, in a mild voice, “Would someone please give us the case of Marbury v. Madison?”

Now anyone in that room could have explained Marbury v. Madison. Hell, we learned about it in high school. Plus we were law students, legal nerds by definition.

For those who’ve forgotten high school or who aren’t from the US, it’s the case where Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Supreme Court can weigh in on the constitutionality of laws and actions by other branches of government. It’s a gimme question. Wikipedia has a good explainer on the case.

Yet everyone else in the room breathed a sigh of relief when Mr. Timmons raised his hand and gave the answer. That’s just how intimidated we were by the professor and by the importance of constitutional law.

Here’s the thing, though. The one thing that didn’t occur to any of us was to question whether Marbury was a good idea. I mean, it would have been like questioning the gospels in a Baptist Sunday school.

Professor Wright certainly didn’t raise the point. I doubt he ever questioned it. But after the last few rulings of the current Supreme Court, it’s pretty clear that allowing a group of unelected lifetime political appointees to be the sole arbiters of what’s constitutional is one of many flaws in our system. Continue reading “Rethinking All the Rules”

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…

City Hiking

I took a class last month through East Bay Regional Parks and learned how to use hiking poles effectively. The class impressed me so much that I put my old hiking poles (which weren’t very good) out on the curb, where they were quickly snatched up. My sweetheart got me some much better ones for my birthday.

Nancy with hiking poles

That gave us an excuse to go hiking, but since we had lots of other things to do, we didn’t want to go far. So we went hiking in the city of Oakland. Our first outing was to Dimond Park (which is pronounced as if it was spelled “diamond”) to hike along Sausal Creek.

Sausal Creek

The trail has not been as well-maintained as it should have been and it was difficult in spots. The poles made a huge difference. Continue reading “City Hiking”

Maturity

On the day after my birthday — a day when I was moving slowly and late getting around to eating — I contemplated the idea of chocolate cake for breakfast.

I had a lovely rum ganache cake for my birthday, from the local Oakland bakery Taste of Denmark (which is owned by its employees). It is a very rich, very tasty, very chocolatey cake and I like it very much.

rum ganache cake
The cake in question.

But I didn’t eat it for breakfast, because I realized that I didn’t really want cake. I wanted real breakfast: fresh fruit, homemade granola, good yogurt, some almonds.

That, I think, is being a mature adult: recognizing that you actually don’t want things that sound like indulgences because they really wouldn’t be all that enjoyable. Another piece of cake after dinner is very pleasurable, but treats are really more fun when they’re treats, not a substitute for the basics.

Continue reading “Maturity”