Jewish King Arthurs

In 1999 I daringly went to a conference (GrailQuest ‘99) and my two worlds collided as they never had before. I went for the Medieval Arthurian stuff (of which I’ve long had a strongly academic interest and about which I’ve written my fair share), but I wasn’t confident enough after all those years outside academic research and didn’t offer a paper. I was more active in the fiction side, and met many people who became long-term friends. I asked a question from the floor of an academic panel and everyone looked across and asked me a question back. They listened, and one of my favourite Aussie writers of the matters of Arthur took me aside and we talked about the subject for a fair while. The write-up of the conference published my answer. I was also asked for a non-academic version of my answer. This is the one I’m giving you this week.

A Jewish King Arthur?

OK, let me admit it up front. As far as I know King Arthur was not Jewish, not in any piece of medieval literature. I have seen him written up as a fairy, as a warlord, as the leader of a very fancy court, but never Jewish. But while he was definitely not Jewish, Jews wrote about him. How do I know the authors were are Jewish? Well, one work is in Hebrew and another in Yiddish. This is a fairly strong indication.

It is hard to say if any other Medieval Arthurian works are Jewish. Most are blatantly Christian. There is, for example, a wonderful prose romance (just amazingly long) where the Grail becomes a very religious object (which it may not have been originally, but that is another story): this is a decidedly Christian affair. And there are some named authors who belong to one court or another and are more likely to be not Jewish. Most Medieval literature is, naturally, by that prolific author anonymous.

One author is borderline. I have seen it argued that Chretien de Troyes (who first introduced the grail into Arthurian romance) was Jewish. He was one of France’s great poets, so I have always wanted it to be proven that he was, indeed Jewish, but the likelihood is that he was not. He may well have Jewish relatives though, or at least Jewish friends – his place of birth was an important Jewish centre, after all -so there is some consolation. Since Chretien as good as invented the verse novel known as the Medieval romance, even a vaguely possible Jewish link is a nice thing.

Most literature written in most medieval languages, sadly, has to be assumed to be Christian unless there is positive proof to the contrary. We are talking, you see, about a Christian society.

But because we are talking about Christian countries in the Christian corner of the world, we can be 100% certain that anything written in Hebrew or Yiddish is very, very unlikely to be written by a Christian. Hebrew was known by scholars of all sorts, but the one Hebrew Arthurian manuscript we have is purely and wholly and gloriously Jewish. There was no reason for clerics to write German texts down in Hebrew characters unless it was for a Jewish audience, so any Christian reader of a Yiddish Arthurian manuscript would have to be the rather bizarre combination of a scholar whose native tongue was German and who preferred to read a translation into a dialect of their vernacular language written in an odd script. Unlikely, I suspect, especially when there is a lovely German version of the same story (Wigalois). So the likelihood is nicely strong for the writer of Widuwilt (the Yiddish tale) to have been Jewish, and probably the copyists and, almost definitely most of the listeners. It was written originally to be declaimed or sung, so most of the audience were listeners rather than readers.

So we are back to the works themselves. What are they? Do we have any idea why they were written? What is their history?

The Hebrew tale is popularly known as the Melekh Artus, and was written in 1279 by a poor soul in the midst of a very trying time. We know this because he wrote it in his introduction: he was translating the Arthurian tales to cheer himself up, and justified it at great length, citing Rabbinic authority. The author/translator was from northern Italy and bits of Italian have crept in. As he was Jewish, bits of Christianity have crept out. Wherever his source has a mass, he omits it, and he translates concepts into Jewish equivalents. I am not sure that Saints and Tsaddikim are analogous, and I really like the thought of the Holy Grail becoming a dish used to give food to the poor.

Either the text is unfinished or the copyist ran our of steam, because the one manuscript of this amazing text is, alas, incomplete. Very incomplete. It is held in the Vatican, and has been edited and translated and yes, Canberra has a copy (at the National Library). Its literary value is very low, I must admit, and the French sources that were used are much more entertaining (except for the brilliant apologia at the beginning, which is well worth reading) but it is most definitely a Jewish (Italian) version of the Arthurian tales.

The other work is later and exists in several versions in several manuscripts and editions. It was not written down until the very close of the Middle Ages, but made up for this shocking lapse by being popular for centuries. Widuwilt only features Arthur as an aside. It is actually about Gawain and his son. It is from the German that the tale reached Yiddish, hardly surprisingly, from an Old French original. The hero has a different name I the German, though. Unfortunately, we have an early example of Jewish humour (maybe written by an ancestor of Sylvia Deutsch?). Apparently Gawain was not really paying attention when his wife bore him a son (he was just about to desert the poor lady, in point of fact) and so, when she asked him what Gawain wanted to call the baby, Gawain answered “Whatever you want”, so he was called “Whatever you want” or “Widuwilt”. Apart from this, most of the tale follows the German original according to my sources (which is just as well, because the French and the German are relatively available, but the Yiddish is not so none of these comments imply a sighting of the original!) except for some adventures added at the end.

It seems to be a lovely adventure romance, with all the Christian bits left intact (yes, Arthur holds court at Easter, rather than at Pesach!) and lots of good fighting. While the Hebrew tale was a bit more serious (as befitting a scholar suffering form melancholy) Widuwilt is simple entertainment, and very suited to a Spielmann and his audience.

Now for the $64,000 question: why am I interested in these works? Like the writer of the Melekh Artus, it is for sound and moral reasons, although I won’t go so far as to cite Rabbinic authority..

One thing that these Medieval Jews had in common with us was the fact that they were a minority group in a society so very Christian that it took that Christianity for granted. You ask most Australians and they will say that Australia is not a Christian society, that it is secular. Yet Christian holidays, Christian imagery and Christian concepts weigh down the very air we breathe. The relationship between Christianity and society was different in Italy in 1279 to Australia seven hundred years later, and Jews definitely have different status, different acceptance, different problems. But we are still not quite mainstream. We are still outside the norm.

Even in the more restrictive atmosphere of Medieval Europe, Jews could reach out and make sense of the fullness of the outside culture. Unless you translate a romance or read it in its original language, you cannot make any sense of the people who write and read in that style. Widuwilt is evidence that some Jews were enjoying Arthurian romances, and actively coming to terms with all those elements of Western European vernacular culture.

The fact that only two works have been translated or interpreted into Jewish languages, one unfinished and apparently for private use, shows that Jews had very different concerns to Christians. But it also show that there was overlap and a meeting of interests. Not only is this interesting in its own right, but it gives us a neat tool for use in understanding our own society, for understanding the culture we share with others, and those elements that are specifically Jewish.

As Australians we often use the dread phrase “cultural cringe”. It can apply just as much to being Jewish Australians as to being Australians in general. We are neither solely religious nor simple recipients of wider Australian culture. We don’t take the whole of our identity from Chaim Potok, nor from Mary Grant Bruce. King Arthur teaches us that. If there is a Jewish view of King Arthur and even a Jewish grail, then there is a Jewish view of everything.

Women’s History Month from another angle

Another bit of the history of Australian Women’s History Month. This was first published by Trivium Publishing, who also took on my first novel. They were the single biggest component in persuading me that I could write and should write. I never didn’t write, to be honest, I just assumed that my writing was not terribly good and that no-one wanted to read it. I didn’t know enough about the publishing world nor about how very isolated Canberra was back then from all publishing influences. It’s still possible to talk to editors and agents in some part s of the world and be discovered as a writer. In Canberra, this is now possible, but only because a group of us worked very hard from the early 2000s to change things. I find it fascinating that new writers don’t know this history.

I also find is fascinating that, what was difficult to do as a writer (be seen, be useful, change things) was very easy for anyone in the women’s movement from the 1980s until about ten years ago. Living in Canberra and having coffee with friends was sometimes enough to meet the people with who you’d change the world. Women’s History Month was a case in point. Ten years ago, all this changed and now Women’s History Month is a faded fragment of what it was 20 years ago. Social forces change and people change and those of us involved years ago are exhausted. This is the human tendency to reinvent the wheel plays such an important part in our history, I suspect.


I have been asked to write an article about women’s history.

I don’t want to write this article. I don’t want yet another piece of writing on the web by an historian, telling non-historians how to think. I was involved in Women’s History Month from the day it started in Australia until 2004, and I am sick of basic instruction. I want to hear stories; I want to tell stories.

I don’t have a whole story to tell, though. I have been thinking about women’s history and realised that my mind has fragmented my experiences. What I have is a series of half-memories. I am an historian who feels history fading and a writer who can’t tell a tale. It is about time I recorded some of my morsels before they are forgotten and someone invents a glorious past.

The official record states that Women’s History Month was first celebrated in Australia in 2000.

Helen Leonard had planned a launch to end all launches. She had talked the Speaker of the Senate, Margaret Reid, into allowing her and her committee to launch the event in Margaret’s private garden in Parliament House. Very official. Very impressive. The list of acceptances was official and impressive too – Australia must have a real Women’s History Month if it is to be launched in the private garden of the Speaker. The dignitaries were daunting.

I didn’t know about this. All I knew was that I was planning an online educational project on women’s history. To be honest, I didn’t even know about Women’s History Month. I was having a whale of a time obsessing about online teaching techniques and I just wanted to set up a test group to teach some women’s history and some Medieval history using those techniques.

When I obsess about something, I tell everyone, so Helen suffered a dose of bubbling enthusiasm about the possibilities of online teaching Medieval Studies and women’s history for people with no history background. My logic in allowing my enthusiasm to bubble was that it made a change from CEDAW and women’s peak networks. Until then I had kept my historian self fairly clear of my committee self.

The next thing I knew, I was meeting Helen for coffee at Gus’s, a café in central Canberra.

The first Women’s History Month committee meeting in Australia was that coffee. I don’t know if the others knew before they arrived – one day I must ask them. I certainly didn’t know. There is a formal list of the initial committee on Australia’s Women’s History Month somewhere, I believe, but I really don’t know if it actually represents all the people Helen had in mind or had worked with.

The historian in me wants to present you with a clear narrative, telling you every important aspect and giving you crystal interpretations. The writer in me wants to present you with an elegantly articulated truth. And the committee person in me says, “I wish life were that simple.”

I can remember the coffee, every mouthful. We sat outside at a little table that was diminished further by Helen’s overflowing ashtray. I had a cappuccino and took so long to drink it that the last mouthfuls were icy. Lulu Respall-Turner walked out of a radio station where she was interviewing me, late last year and we looked at that table from across the road and asked each other why it was so far in our pasts. Five years is not a long time, but the underlying fabric of life changed when Helen died: that first meeting was aeons ago.

Like that coffee, my images are frozen. I remember thinking, “In the US they had an Act of Congress to create Women’s History Month; in Australia we have a declaration by Helen.”

Of course there was far more to Women’s History Month than a personal declaration and a cup of coffee.

For one thing, there was Margaret Reid and her garden. Now she bears the title Honourable and is retired: her garden has bowed out, even though she hasn’t.

I met her garden before I met her, so it has a very real personality for me. My mind flirted with the greenery as I helped setting up for the launch, and then I became acquainted with her kitchen as I washed the glasses after that launch. These tasks protected me from the dignitaries: I was too shy to tell anyone I was an historian, so I pretended to be the kitchen volunteer.

Until Women’s History Month was launched in that garden and for the full time we celebrated it, all I saw was my computer, and more of my computer. No, that is not true, one afternoon I saw Helen’s computer. It took long hours from all of us to bring that first Women’s History Month in Australia to life.

That afternoon with Helen’s computer is my next image frozen in time, in fact. It must have been a couple of weeks before the launch. I had set up online discussion boards and chat rooms and everyone agreed we would get key women in to discuss their experiences and that we would record what they said and we could archive this for researchers to use. It would be fun. We were totally determined that it would be fun.

Anne Summers and Marilyn Lake were on the committee and did their bit on the program as well, but weren’t a program in and of themselves. I was happy to train people, but we needed More Big Names to grab the general public and in general, we were lacking in people to train. I had emailed Helen and she had emailed me, and we had talked round the committee and explored some possibilities, but we had nothing like a full program.

By this stage it was becoming apparent that the launch was our flagship and that the online program would be the part of women’s history month that would meet all the rest of our goals. The launch would make people aware of women’s history; the online stuff would get women involved, remembering and owning their pasts. Without much ado, my temporary classroom became our main program focus.

That afternoon with Helen’s computer gave us the bulk of our program.

When Helen had said, “Come to my office and we will fix it today” she had been totally serious: I went to Helen’s office. Erica Lewis was there, I think, and helped until meetings overtook her. Wreathed in smoke, drowning in instant coffee, we worked our way through Helen’s black address book.

Soon we had it down to an erratic system. Helen would give me a few names and we would toss about a possible topic, then she would ring or email that short list of friends. Since they were all Great Names, this usually meant her leaving messages. Sometimes she was put straight through and I would hear half-conversations about children and mutual friends and political action before Helen introduced the reason for the call. I was in the background the whole time, which, now I think of it, sums up a lot of my experience over the last five years: Women’s History Month has involved a lot of hidden work.

Eventually Helen had rung everyone and moved onto other things and I had a draft schedule nutted out based heavily on who might ring back and what they were likely to say. Then the phones started ringing. I filed the blanks in on my program sheet: we had our Big Names.

Our first program consisted of a totally terrific array of women. They had all made a huge leap of faith: very few of them had been in a web discussion or chat before, and although we were supported by the Women’s Electoral Lobby (and then by the National Foundation of Australian Women) we were not a formally constituted body with funding and written objectives. We were a group of friends, brought together by Helen, all of whom cared passionately about women and about history.

Now Women’s History Month doesn’t meet at Gus’s. It has a permanent, purpose-designed website. It is supported by the National Library and the National Museum and a host of other institutions. It has a budget. It even has sub-committees. Other women than me do the IT training and support and hidden work. I can go back to being a Medievalist and writer. And I can reminisce pleasantly about that coffee with Helen and where it led.

Thinking About Heat Waves

I grew up without air conditioning in a small town outside of Houston. We finally got a couple of window units when I was 13, after my great-uncle died and left us a little money.

That made it easier to sleep in the summer, but I still spent a lot of my time in the room we called the den, which wasn’t air-conditioned, sitting in a large easy chair with a fan blowing directly on me. It was my favorite place to read and I read a lot.

Of course, we also had an attic fan, which circulated the air through a lot of the house. I’ll also point out that you don’t move much when you read and that we had plenty of water. A quick shower, a cold drink, and staying out of the sun will keep you going for a long time on a really hot day.

I could say this was all before climate change, but, of course, the climate change we’re experiencing now goes back to the industrial revolution. But while summers in the area where Houston is now have been hot and humid for millennia – long before European colonization – we are now reaching a point where they’ll get just enough worse to make life much harder for everyone.

In our modern world, air conditioning is a necessity. Houston may have become a large city before air conditioning was universal – ports and oil will do that – but it didn’t become the headquarters of so many major corporations until that happened.

Still, it’s useful to point out that in places that have always had hot, humid summers, people figured out how to survive and thrive before air conditioning. Some of that came from building with the weather in mind, some from knowing it was going to happen and being prepared.

Those who live in places that get serious winter will tell you the same thing about winter.

There is a point where those things don’t do enough. We’re going to get heat waves that kill people who do everything right.

Continue reading “Thinking About Heat Waves”

Linzertorte, Women’s History Month, and feminism

One big chunk of my life finished in 2004 – I left the group that ran Women’s History Month. I was one of the founders of WHM in Australia, so I wrote about it in several places that year. This is one of the pieces. It was, initially, one of the lost bits of writing, then a feminist organisation published it, then I put it on my own blog, one Women’s History Month. I must have liked it a lot, to push so hard for it to be visible at a time when I mistrusted every word I wrote:

For five years Women’s History Month and mid-life crises had a lot in common. Me.


I worked on Australia’s Women’s History Month from 2000-2004. From the very beginning it force d me to rethink some basics about who I am and what my heritage is. I had to think about what I meant by feminism (which wasn’t what I thought I meant at all) and, more than anything else, it made me treasure a much wider range of women’s experience. Pretty big stuff.

So how did this pretty big stuff happen?

My view of history used to be shaped by my university training. Nine years of unrelenting full time history study has to have fixed something in my brain, after all. I came out of those nine years dedicated to the European Middle Ages. My passion for past is for intellectual baggage and culture, things like epic poetry and temporal awareness and obscure aspects of medieval literature. Always, always Medieval.

In March 2000 I found myself jostled by everyone else’s much more recent memories. Around me, for the whole month, people were talking about recent history. I read everything they wrote: I had to, because I was the technical backup for the Australian online program. I didn’t just read what people posted to the web, I had email and telephone conversations, because the women who ran into technical trouble were only too happy to find an historian at the other end of the phone and to chat about women’s history. There is nothing like reading for opening doors in the mind. Almost nothing; my mind-doors opened as much from those conversations as from the reading.

I read expert and personal views on everything from women in the labour movement, through women’s right to vote to how society thinks women ought to act. In this recent history I could see something startlingly different to my more dispassionate view of how epic tales were told in the twelfth century told and why the Arthurian stories developed the way they did: I was starting to see links between the intellectual baggage people carry, and the lives of people I know. I had to expand my definitions. One of my favourite terms of the past few years has become ‘portable culture.” In my mind this does not refer to lunch boxes featuring superheroes; it is an ever-changing array of ideas and judgements that we carry round with us. It is the rose or purple or psychedelic coloured glasses we see the world with, and the frameworks that we use when we try to explain our own worlds.

The experience of Women’s History Month started me wondering about other things as well. Where did I come from as a feminist? Why was my feminism softer than the public hard image of a tough militant political activist? Did I have role models? And why feminism and history? Gillian-as-historian became Gillian-the-person: I am more than just a repository of really interesting knowledge and ideas.

There are few declared feminists in my family. There is a cousin who edits a left wing newspaper. We always say we needed both her and my Uncle Sol in the family, to balance each other. Uncle Sol was as far to the Right, as my newspaper-editing cousin is to the Left. Very few other members of my family are active politically, though my father flirted with the idea in the 1940s. And my family makes no political judgements in terms of who comes to dinner; the hard right and hard left are as welcome as everything in between. So I did not inherit a set of political views from anyone, and there was no pressure from the family to become involved in politics and the women’s movement.

When you define feminism in terms of life style and life choices, however, rather than politics, the views were much stronger and the legacy greater. I had more role models than you can poke a stick at.

My cousin Linda, for instance was a composer and music critic. She was 103 when she died, just a couple of years ago.

Linda was the first woman in my life to talk openly about what it was like to hold down a job in a very male environment. One story sticks in particular. She told this to me at Passover many years ago, which was a very appropriate time in the Jewish calendar for telling it, since we all tell stories at Passover. Normally they are about fleeing from Egypt, and how hard it is to get the kids to do any work around the house.

Linda told me about her early days as a journalist. When she was a young music critic, she wrote her pieces and submitted them. The sub-editor looked at them, OK’d them, then put them in a drawer and forgot about them.

Linda was infuriated by this. In fact, as time passed and more and more of her writing never saw printer’s ink, she became quite tempestuous. Linda has always been a tiny woman, and this was over a half century ago, so ‘tempestuous’ was very restrained and ladylike. She approached the sub-editor and asked, “Why aren’t you printing my stories?”

He prevaricated and made excuses, but eventually the answer came down to, “Because you are a woman.”

Linda then did a very unexpected thing. She took her stories and went to the sub-editor’s boss. She placed them on his desk and said, “Read these.” He read them, and said that they were good. The sub-editor was ‘persuaded’ to treat Linda like a real journalist.

Eventually, he left the newspaper, for other reasons. He walked jauntily up to Linda on his last day and, looking down at her face, said, “It’s D-Day. I’m going.” Linda looked back up at him and said, “No, it’s V-Day. You’re going.”

When I started doing feminist things, Linda was the least surprised. She told me about my great-aunts who ran a specialist shop in Collins Street in the 1930s. They refused to get married, she said, because it would have meant giving up their annual trip to Paris, and they would have not been able to upset my grandmother by arriving everywhere in a chauffeur-driven car.


Linda was not my only influence, though. My mother taught geology. Rock samples sat on the kitchen bench next to home-made biscuits. When she was sent on a big interstate field trip, I had great trouble persuading her that her geological hammer could not go in her handbag.

What if I need it during the trip?”

You won’t need it until you get there, Mum. Put it in your normal luggage. The security people won’t like it when it appears on their scanners.”

No, I can’t do that,” she said, “I might have to get a piece of rock en route.”

Mum, you are flying.”

So what?”


We were taught to cook at the same time as we were taught to use scientific method.

This led to friction when I was seventeen. Embryo scientists do not become historians. The feminism was fine. As long as I didn’t grandstand or show off, it was useful. But history? We didn’t have any historians in the family and she wasn’t sure she wanted me to be the first. She has since recanted and is now a volunteer museum guide.

When I started looking to find other influences, strong women emerged just about everywhere. I told my mother about this piece and she told me to include my grandmother. My grandmother was a big macha (very important person) in the National Council of Jewish Women. This has led me to some extraordinarily interesting work, like the preparations for the Australian NGO part of the UN Beijing + 5 meeting. But that was not what my mother meant, when she said not to forget how my grandmother made me a feminist. This is the story she tells:

Mum always cooked fish for big functions. One year NCJW combined with the Red Cross and they hired the Town Hall, and had a fete. Mum fried the fish. And she fried the fish. And she fried the fish. To make sure everyone ate this fried fish, she would cook some onions alongside. The scent wafted through the air vents to the street. That fish disappeared like snow in summer, and the Red Cross did particularly well that day from passersby, who followed the cooking smells.”

I had not thought of feminism as related to fried fish, but Mum was right, and it is.

I was thinking more of my late cousin Edith, who used to work for the Blood Bank. She helped Mum train me as an embryo scientist almost as soon as I could speak. She also taught me to enjoy Persian rugs.

Once when I was visiting we started talking about family recipes. Edith managed to qualify as a doctor in the 1930s, escape Vienna before the Shoah, then survive Australia, despite the fact that Australia recognised neither her medical degree nor anything else.

In the previous war, it was her mother who had been the alien. She was Hungarian and had moved to Vienna because of her Viennese husband. Women do this sort of thing all the time. But this was not “all the time”, it was World War I. Her husband was guarding the aqueducts, and was almost the only person Edith’s mother knew in the city. She had very young children, and life was a struggle.

Then she heard her husband was to be sent to the Russian front. To be alone with young children in a strange city during a major war is not an enviable thought. Edith always sought sensible solutions to troubling situations, and this is exactly what her mother did. She made an appointment to speak with the wife of the Governor of the city, another Hungarian.

The Governor’s wife fed her coffee and linzertorte and listened carefully. Edith’s mother left with the recipe for the linzertorte and a promise that the Governor’s wife would see what she could do. Edith’s father never made it to the Russian front, and we still have that recipe for linzertorte. I make the cake occasionally. And from now, when I make it, I will think of the many reasons it became inevitable that Gillian, an historian, would also end up a feminist.

Elven Grammar

I wrote a series of posts explaining grammar for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2004 and 2005. They were not actually about Elven Grammar (no surprise there) but about English grammar from a perspective that suited science fiction and fantasy readers. I wrote them as ‘Philologa Majora’. I never finished the series, because there was no longer a need for them. For years afterwards, people who knew who Philologa was asked me about what came next. This is a part of what came next. For the rest, I have only notes. I keep telling myself that the world needs another introduction to grammar, but something always gets in the way…

This did, however, lead to me teaching grammar for years and years to all kinds of writers through the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Now you have the basic pure and perfect grammar. But most languages do not use pure forms in everyday speech. Learn a lovely literary English, and try to use it to buy a pair of shoes. Elvish needs to distinguish between literary forms and everything else. For the sake of brevity this article is even more oversimplified than usual, but we can distinguish between literary language, purely grammatical language, and the language as spoken by different groups in the culture (eg a lawyer as opposed to a brickie as opposed to someone terrifyingly fashionable).

The first step in creating the different styles of language as used on different aspects of a culture is to develop a simple popular dialect, which will contrast straightforwardly with the “educated” version of the language. Mercedes Lackey does this in her novels quite frequently: just two dialects to suggest a host of subtle differences.

To create the popular language your first step is to dump some of your carefully created grammar. Make your users sound a bit slack or informal. If two endings sound very similar and if conflating them won’t cause mass confusion, then conflate them. Have people speak in less than whole sentences. Contract words (“it is” to “it’s”). That sort of thing.

Remember, however, that when Latin got too Popular, it became French and Italian and Spanish. In other words, don’t overcomplicate this step. You want to keep enough links with the original language so that people see it as a debased or popular version of the original language, and not as entirely new language.

The next important step is to clearly distinguish your dialects or users groups by the sort of words they use. The strongest way of doing this is probably to first work out your insults and impoliteness. While this is more social custom (word origins again) than grammar, it is very, very handy as writer’s tool. Placing these insults realistically into your invented language takes a bit of thought. When someone says “You bloody drongo,” it does not mean the same thing as “On quiet reflection, I rather suspect you might be a drongo.” The latter contrasts idioms; it uses the popular with the formal to make a point. The former is insult direct.

Idioms are important. Create idioms that reflect the underlying culture. It might be its culture heroes (“Up there Cazaly”) or it might be its earthy sense of humor (all examples expurgated to meet the needs of a family readership). You don’t need to overload your speech with them. In fact, you do not want to overload your speech with them. Imagine entering a pub in rural Somerset – it is very hard to understand the natives. But by giving your characters just a bit of idiom and just a flavour of the underlying stuff of their dreams and beliefs and daily lives, you can communicate their reality to your readers without jeopardizing understanding. Just as, by having a popular, grammatically different version of the language, you can instantly show how educated the speaker is, or if they are adapting to local ways.

A life-changing moment with Cordwainer Smith

2005 was a low point for me: I had lost all my confidence. I was pretty certain that I was a failure in all things intellectual and that I couldn’t write, but I was still very determined to keep going. I stayed with what I loved, even when I was pushed to the side, time after time. People with a single course as an undergraduate ere given work ahead of my PhD in a field, and it hurt.

Everything I wrote that year and into 2006 has underlying rumbles of my lac of confidence. It took me a few more years to discover that the problem had never been with my intellect. Sometimes it was because I am chronically ill (and one is not supposed to be intellectually competent and ill, both), sometimes because I’m not male (such an Australian bias) and, most often, because I’m Jewish. Nice people don’t say antisemitic things… they simply leave Jews out of things, or choose someone ahead of them.

How did my self-image begin to change? When I was at a Melbourne science fiction convention, I was asked to join a panel on Cordwainer Smith. Not by the convention planners, but by the panel itself. I said something and Bruce Gillespie asked me to write it up. This is what I wrote for Bruce:

Cordwainer Smith: reflections on some of his themes

  1. Canberra and Norstrilia

Canberra in the 1960s was a mere kernel of the Canberra of 2005. It was small and green, mostly buildings and public parkland, surrounded by the enormous brown of rural Australia. This was the Canberra that Corndwainer Smith knew. Not the small internationalist city of today, with its sprawl of suburbs and its café culture, but an overgrown country town that just happened to be the seat of government for a whole country. You can see a sense of this Canberra in Smith’s work, the idea that Norstrilian government is more a set of social compacts than a formal hierarchy, the idea that family and inheritance counts (the earliest settlers in the area still farmed sheep on what are today mere suburbs, Kambah for instance was farmed by the Beattie family) and the ideal that the country is vast and brown and far diminishes the civilisation it nurtures.

There are other reflections of Australian life of the time in Smith’s work. Immigration, for instance.

While policies were much more open than it had been, the inheritance of the White Australia policy was still very apparent in the people of this country. Much of Australia was still white, still Anglo, and still very conservative. In many places, of which Canberra was one, walking down the street one could very easily assume that the only non-Anglos were diplomats, that Australia didn’t let any strangers cross the border unless they had proven their credentials.

This was not the reality. Cordwainer Smith came to Australia at the crucial moment when White Australia was being broken down – indigenous Australians were finally given voting rights, migrants came from places other than the United Kingdom. The effects of this change were not yet apparent, however, outside Melbourne and Sydney and places such as the Queensland canefields. The reality of Canberra in the 1960s was that the hydroelectric scheme and more open immigration policies were bringing more and more people from other parts of Europe into the region – but walking down a Canberra street, the feeling was still very much of the dominant ancestry being British.

The Australia Smith saw was very much the cultural blueprint for Norstilia, with its responsibility towards remembering the British Empire and preserving certain cultural values.

At that time, Australia had a very restrictive economic policy. This included a barrage of tariffs and customs restrictions that have since been phased out. It was openly admitted that these restrictions were to develop the local economy and to protect important elements of it – the Melbourne clothes industry was of particular importance, for instance.

The effect of these import restrictions on everyday life was very marked; Australia was wealthy, but not quite first world. We took a long time to adopt innovations from outside, and luxury goods were particularly highly taxed. At the same time, because food and accommodation were much cheaper than in many other countries and Australian workers worked shorter days, even the poorest person was said to be richer than wealthy people elsewhere, in terms of lifestyle.

Add this to an important religious factor: the default religion people wrote on their census data as Church of England, and the Queen was both head of the Church and head of State. The political crises of the 1970s which disputed and lessened the impact of the royal family had not yet happened, and the most important Prime Minister of the 1960s, Sir Robert Menzies, was a keen royalist. A keen royalist and rather autocratic leader – the exact mix that Cordwainer Smith struggles to describe from a slightly bemused outsider viewpoint in his depiction of Norstrilia.

To the surprised outsider, we could easily have looked like a country that practiced old-fashioned Church of England values. Very High Church – abstemious and full of self-restraint.

Internally, Australia was not really self-restrained. The slow adoption of new technologies such as television were largely because of the distance of Australia from the rest of the world combined with the tariff system. Smith was interpreting this from a High Church view, however, and would be astonished by the current Australia, where abstemiousness and low technology levels are rather absent.

What Smith saw was an Australia ruled by an innocent nobility with power that was mostly inexpressed. This is the source of the apparent abstemiousness as he described it. It showed more in Canberra than elsewhere. There were only two major industries in Canberra at that time: the public service (all national) and the university. Canberra fully understood the outside world, but its lifestyle in no way reflected it. There were secure incomes and workplaces, safe jobs, but not much in the way of luxury. Canberra was a hard place to get to, for a capital city, with only a local airport and only one train station, and it had an extraordinarily suburban lifestyle. It also had (and still has) like Norstrilia an unexpectedly large awareness of the outside world and a sophisticated understanding of how the trade barriers operated.

It is very hard not to see the Canberra of the time in Norstrilia: a place with a sophisticated understanding of the external world, cut off from it and surrounded by bleak but rich countryside dominated by some of the best sheep territory n the world. It is ironic that, well after Paul Linebarger died, Goulburn built its Giant Merino – an enormous grey tribute to the traditional source of wealth in the Canberra region.

  1. The importance of Abba-dingo

Abba-dingo is particularly important in understanding Cordwainer Smith’s constructed universe. It appears in his short story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”. Abba-dingo was a carnival head that took coins or tokens and gave prophecies.

Writers looking for the origins of Smith’s odd names suggest that Abba- comes from the words ‘Abba’ for father from Hebrew or Aramaic, and the Australian native dog, ‘dingo’. While this appeals to me because it calls forth an Australian phrase ‘Old Man Dingo’, I have to admit, that I have large problems with this etymology. I suspect that Abba-dingo comes from a word much closer to home for Paul Linebarger and gives strong indications as to how his religious views shape decision in his universe: it comes from the Book of Daniel.

In the Book of Daniel the king of Babylon visits Jerusalem. He finds several royal Jewish children both beautiful and wise, and he proposes to teach these children the lore of the Chaldeans. He had the children renamed. Azariah was renamed Abednego. Naturally Daniel was the hero of this tale, which is all about true prophecy, but Abednego is linked to the true prophecy and survives his stint in a furnace.

Cordwainer Smith makes the link between Abba-dingo and Abednego quite obvious, as Abednego by using the notion of the fiery furnace and in ‘Alpha ralpha Boulevard” the making the imprint of the prophecy by fire. To make sure we don’t miss the point, in the King James Bible Abednego is always spelled Abed-nego and Smith divides Abba-dingo in the same way.

Abba-dingo then, is a closet reference to the Old Strong Religion. The head is an indication that the universe is planned, even when it looks like a game from a penny arcade. It refers back to the innocents and the holy being able to be given and to live the truth, even when they have no understanding of what is happening.

Cordwainer Smith has devised a predetermined universe based very much on a very High Church reading of the Bible. More than that, he writes a belief in the Select (chosen almost before their birth and with predestined accomplishments) eg D’Joan.

Much of his belief is not modern Church of England at all – it is, to me, very nineteenth century and fundamentalist. This is reflected in the nature of most of his short stories. They are Bunyanesque in feel. He emphasises this feel by the style he uses for the stories where the religion is an important component. He works with carefully built-up introductions and focuses on the inner meaning of lives rather than the individuality and personality of the people involved. This implies that these people are more important for the role they play than as game pieces to catch a reader’s eye.

The track of history and the meaning it all leads to is more important than the tale itself. Each story is, in fact, part of the monumental progress of humankind and animalkinds towards a future that Cordwainer Smith only hints at. Just like Moses, we don’t see Smith’s Holy Land except fro a distance – the voyage to it is more important.

What is important about the Bunyanesque progression is not the end of it. The aim is not to provide a guide to holy living or to a perfect future. Cordwainer Smith is not CS Lewis – his fiction does not preach.

What it provides is a mythical background to his novels. If you read all his short fiction then your read Norstrilia, you have the perfect structure for the assumptions that are made in the novel. He provides a legendary past and important indications of the future. This makes him look extraordinarily innovative, as his stories often use an allegorical or fairytale format rather than one more typical of the SF conventions of his time. Understanding those allegorical and fairytale formats and that legendary past and mythic background are important to understanding how to read the universe he created.

For instance, those indications give us important clues to certain characters (eg C’mell) and enable us to read far more into their behaviour and attribute more to their personalities than would otherwise be possible. Without the background, C’mell looks simply obedient and maybe a bit boring, regardless of her physical beauty, and her reward is the reward of dull virtue. When the reader understands that the Norstrilia section is only a small segment of her life, her reactions take on a much greater complexity.

The skill he brings to his more conventional writing highlights that these departures from convention are quite intentional. Cordwainer Smith was not writing a single novel: he was writing an allegorical universe with a complex history, and he was peopling it with real people (of various species) whose personalities and who capacity to determine their own lives were heavily affected by the allegorical nature of his universe.

Abba-dingo points to this. Cordwainer Smith uses the Abadnego joke to both indicate the religious allegory and to mock at it. Abba-dingo is, after all, only a fairground toy – how do we know that it is God speaking through a fairground mechanical or whether the author is using it as a cheap plot device.

This is the brilliance of Cordwainer Smith. He refers to his Old Strong Religion. He uses his Old Strong Religion. He shapes the whole story of D’Joan and the quest of Chaser O’Neill around a particularly archaic version of Protestant belief. All the traditional allegory and the Biblical and religious knowledge that was commonplace in his youth appears in his writing, from the land of Mizraim (Misr) to the need to forego the quest in order to achieve the true goal.

Yet all the while he uses these patterns, he mocks them. He makes it clear that his is an invented universe. He has his heroes play with space and time like gods, while indicating that they can’t possibly be gods. He creates his Vomact family in such a way that the ambivalence between good and evil is perennially pointed out: we don’t know until we are read a given story whether the Vomact will be hero or villain.

In showing the hand of the creator so very, very clearly, Cordwainer Smith casts doubt on his own allegories. He leaves it to the reader to think it through.

A Steve Jobs connection

I never met Steve Jobs, at least not that I knew of. If our paths crossed at Reed College, I never knew who he was. I’ve never owned an Apple computer, so I have no connection with him that way. Yet we share a deeper experience. We both had the honor and delight to study calligraphy at Reed College. (I believe Jobs actually studied with Bob Palladino, Lloyd’s student and successor, who continued his tradition.)

Here’s what Jobs said in his 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University:
I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

When I heard about his death, one of my thoughts was, Another person who knew Lloyd is gone. And since lots and lots of other people are talking about the impact Jobs and Apple made in their lives, I want to talk a little about Lloyd.

A calligraphy class — any class — with Lloyd encompassed far more than the subject material. Yes, he taught us about letter forms, their evolution and design, and how the demands of the eye and the inherent rhythms of the hand shape the letter forms. But more than that, Lloyd taught us to see and to listen beneath the obvious. Into his lectures, he wove Buddhist philosophy, William Blake, John Ruskin, contemporary progressive thought, and a deep and abiding reverence for the many expressions of the human spirit. He railed against narrow-mindedness, bigotry, hatred (and stood up to HUAC during the McCarthy years).

He loved to make writing organic, writing poems on brown paper and hanging them on trees; he called them “weathergrams.”

In this video, notice how the energy of Mozart’s music flows through the movement of the pen. Also, the fluidity of the strokes, which comes from a soft grasp of the pen and suppleness through the entire arm and body. The pen dances across the pages.

2016 in the life of a Gillian

Did anything happen in 2016 besides over a hundred short pieces of mine being published? Quite possibly. It was a busy year. Not the busiest, but busy enough. Most importantly, it was the year The Wizardry of Jewish Women was published. It was the first Australian fantasy novel by a Jewish Australian. History and Fiction also came out that year. It’s an academic volume. I interviewed historical fiction writers about how they use history in their writing and they wrote such informative and colourful answers that the wider public has been buying the book.

I was teaching at the Australian National University in the evenings, and for Belconnen Community Services during the day. I rounded up my income from many short articles. That was the year I officially lost count of how much of my writing was published by other people. It was also the year that I discovered that it was posible to be asked to do volunteer work for a casual day job and that the work would be greedier of my time than the actual job. This was at the Australian National University, where I was the “College Champion” teacher for the Centre for Continuing Education. The most time-consuming duty as to help other CCE staff get teaching accreditation. There was nothing in it for me – I had a graduate diploma and was accredited for university teaching in two different ways. I did it as a community service, just as I was involved in science fiction conventions and, earlier, in other things. This was the beginning of the end of my life at the ANU: this was their first step in demanding more work than I was ever paid for and of treating me without any dignity. 2016 was the year they ‘forgot’ the advertise my courses and then complained that I no longer had enough students to warrant offering them. I survived finally by writing articles, giving workshops at writers’ centres, and survived physically with the help of my local hospital. I also had a blog on my own website and, every March, asked fellow-writers if they’d be interested in celebrating Women’s History Month with a blog post. A publisher collapsed, and some of the work that was supposed to be out early the next year is only just now beginning to emerge. It was a complex year and an impossible one: 2017 was much better.

The great advantage of being a bit older is that I have years of curious life to draw on when I need them. My first publication was when I was fourteen. It was a letter to the editor of a local journal. The local journal was so surprised that I’d written to counter the council’s plan to place speed bumps or roundabouts in all the back streets to force people onto the main roads, and that the letter had been written in green ink, that this was also the first time I had an article about me in a newspaper. The green ink was pale and hard to read. I thought it was fine and trendy, but I pity the publishing editor.

I can’t go back as far as that with this series. For one thing, there was no internet. In fact, personal computers were only just looming. The 1970s were the time of the typewriter and the ballpoint pen. In my case, the pale green ballpoint pen. For another, only one or two stories appeared in print for the next few years then…. Nothing. There a story behind that ‘nothing’, I can take this little series back to last century, then. I can, but will I? Wait and see. The next year I’ll look at is 2005. The reason I chose 2005 is because I’ve been mourning losing most of my photographs from that year. I need to prove to myself that it was still a good year. My photographs are part of my research and part of my writing and whenever I need the ones from 2005 or one of those missing from 2006, I want to rail at the world. My reason for railing at the world in 2016 was nearly dying, and in 2005, photographs. That pretty much sums up the differences between those years.

Men vs. Bears

Unless you’re one of those sensible people who actually succeeds in not spending too much time online, you’ve probably seen something somewhere about the man versus bear debate.

I gather it began on TikTok (which I don’t watch on account of not being into video when words work just fine) but I’ve seen it on all the social media that I do read. Basically, women were asked whether, if they were hiking on a trail, they’d rather run into a bear or a man.

A vast majority of women said bear.

Some percentage of men were upset by this and proceeded to explain to women just how dangerous bears really are, on account of they assumed women couldn’t possibly understand that bears were dangerous.

Most of the posts I read about this were by women dunking on such men. Many shared a quote from someone – I only saw it in meme form so I don’t know who – to the effect of “If I were attacked by a bear, no one would ask what I’d been wearing.”

Which is to say that a lot of women used this bit to hammer home the fact that most women are conscious all the time that they’re at risk from men. It brought out the lists of things that most women do to protect themselves.

Note to the men out there: that list does not usually include “find a big strong man to protect me” because most women are well-aware of just how badly that can go.

While these days I usually go backpacking with my sweetheart, on account of the fact that we both like it and also that he is willing to do the part of setting up the tent that involves crawling around on the ground, an activity that my knees do not care for, I have in the past done such trips both by myself or with another woman.

I have not had a problematic run-in with either a bear or a man on those trips. I attribute the lack of bear problem to the fact that I used to hang my food in trees, as you are instructed to do when doing backcountry hiking in the Shenandoah National Park.

And one good way to avoid the man problem is to camp out of sight of the trail, which is also the accepted practice (or was back when I did it) in that park. If you can’t see people on the trail, they can’t see you.

Here in California, perhaps because of greater worry about fire, you are instructed to camp at designated campsites. There are shelters in Shenandoah National Park and people do stay in those as well. But I always used the camping off the trail system on the East Coast.

The closest I ever came to bears was one night when I was car camping in West Virginia and heard much snuffling outside my tent. I was sure it was bears. I was terrified. I finally summoned up the nerve to peek out of the tent and saw a large herd of deer. I’d apparently pitched a tent right in the middle of their salad bar. Continue reading “Men vs. Bears”

On the Road Between No and Where

Several years ago, I began describing places that were some distance away from towns of any size as “the intersection of No and Where.” On our recent road trip we discovered something even more isolated: “the road between No and Where.”

It was on such a road – Texas RM 2400 – that our right front tire decided to give way.

I should point out that RM 2400 (RM stands for “ranch to market”) is a perfectly good paved road. The problem was that it stretches between a state highway and a US highway and that even where it intersects those roads, there is no there there.

(I suspect that when Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there is “no there there,” she had never been to any place where that was literally true.)

We were on our way back from seeing the eclipse and visiting family in the Texas Hill Country, and we had decided to take a short side trip down to the Alpine/Marfa area to see the high desert country in spring, which is a good time for visiting deserts.

There are ways to get there on somewhat more traveled roads, but this looked like it led to a scenic route. We’d had the car serviced before the trip and the tires were relatively new, so we were not expecting trouble.

I should point out that trouble usually happens when you’re not expecting it.

We were toodling along and all of a sudden things were very rough. The road hadn’t changed. I said, “Do you think we have a flat?”

We decided to pull over into the first driveway we came to (no real shoulders on that road).

The tire wasn’t flat. It was gone, left in shreds along the road.

So we took all the stuff out of the back that was on top of where the spare tire was. Lots of stuff – the casual packing of a road trip coupled with some things I was bringing back from Austin.

We found the spare and the lug wrench, but no jack.

That seemed odd, but it occurred to me that, despite the fact that my car is 18 years old (my mechanic assures me that it is never going to die on account of the fact that it is a Scion, which is to say a Toyota), I had never changed a tire on it. When I had a flat, I called Triple A.

Which we would have definitely done, except that we had no cell service. And of course, the nearest possible place that might have a Triple A person was at least 60 miles away.

Anyway, I was convinced there must be a jack somewhere, so I looked under the front seat and there it was. So we moved some more stuff to get at it, put the jack under the car, and started the process.

My sweetheart, who has knees, did most of the cranking of the jack. We then worked on the lug nuts. Three of them came off with some effort. However, there were four of them, and the fourth one was not coming off at all.

Apparently it was stripped.

Let me also note that with the exception of a semi that passed us right after we stopped, no one else had come down the road.

Fortunately, at this point a man in a pickup came along and turned in at the gate of the very place where we had stopped. Continue reading “On the Road Between No and Where”