Cake made in 2001. My technique has improved.

When I was a kid I was at a friend’s house one afternoon when friend’s toddler brother went racing through the room and down the hall with friend’s mother running after him, yelling “Did you make? Did you make?” I looked at my friend. “Toilet training. She wanted to know if he had a BM.”

“Ah,” I said. My friend and I returned to whatever game we’d been playing.

But this morning as I thought out what to do with the day, I remembered my friend’s mother: “Did you make? Did you make?” That’s the question: were you productive today? What did you produce? The family I grew up in was not so concerned with bowel habits, but I did grow up believing firmly that You Are What You Produce.

I’m working on two books and a short story, and not one of them is being obliging. Which is to say, I don’t feel comfortable that I know where any of them are going, and that lack of focus is making it hard for me to engage. Writing, when I”m into it, should have at least an edge of fun–if not fun right now, then the promise of fun down the line. There should be anticipation: “Ooh, if I set this up now, later I can do THIS. And That! And THIS!” Right now I’m lacking that sense of anticipation.

Thus I find myself making other things, in order to live up to my You Are What You Produce programming. There are things that I need, or want, to do: I’m working on learning Italian, which isn’t something with a finished object to be held aloft for admiration, but is still an accomplishment of sorts. There are also the approximately 1,624 chores that need doing: cleaning out the closets, organizing the filing cabinets, putting things away so that they’re, um, away. But those are chores, there’s no output at the end of it (rather the opposite: at the end there should be less rather than more).

But cakes and frosting flowers and bread and beaded necklaces? I do them because I like the process, and improving the process (I just found a photo of a cake I decorated when my kid was in kindergarten, 23 years ago; I’ve gotten better) and because at the end of the day I’ve made something. Because I’m not getting that I was Productive rush from my writing, I have to get it from somewhere else. From the manipulation of stuff to make stuff.

Still, on my To Do list every day is time putting words on the page. Just because I’m not feeling it right now doesn’t mean that I won’t feel it ever. This is not my first time around the Maker’s block. In my experience some word or scene or idea will make my brain go *PLINK* and I’ll be in the zone again. So I keep writing, even when I’m writing in circles. And I make cake and bracelets to take the pressure off the words.

It’s a weird system, but it works. 


Richard III

Another of the unpublished pieces. I found second homes for many of them, eventually, so only a handful remain unseen.

Certain moments of history are forged into our brains.

The memory of Richard III has been given to us by Shakespeare:  the warped king. It has been left to us by Millais in his pitiful painting of the Princes in the Tower:  the murderous uncle. These judgements have been contested strongly by Richard’s supporters, who see him as a good man. However he is judged and however he is remembered, he was a human being. And all human beings have happy moments in their lives.

One moment of joy we do have for Richard, saved despite the loss of records over time, despite the fact that the Tudors hated him, saved despite the fact that in the fifteenth century less was written down that we would write today. We have a menu.

We know what was served to Richard the day he was crowned king.

So let us surreptitiously reach back to a moment when Richard was new to his throne, his nephews were very alive, and all was well with the world. Even Richard’s worst enemies were given roles of dignity and worth.

The banquet was formal and glorious: the food did not stand alone. There was panoply and display and glory. The King’s Champion would have paid a dramatic visit, for instance. The doors of Westminster flung wide open to admit him and his small procession. The Champion was a-horseback and beautifully armed. He threw down his gauntlet to announce his challenge. The food would have been spiced with moments such as this.

The menu itself was sumptuous. Three courses for Richard, two for his nobles dining elsewhere and one course for everyone else. There were too many people to fit into the Great Hall, and the celebrations spilled over into its surrounds. It took a lot of food to serve 1200 people. In fact, it took 30 bulls 12 fatted pigs, 6 boars, 140 sheep, 400 lampreys, 350 pikes, 100 trout and so on. The cooks dealt with 2200 chickens (of various types), 1,000 geese, and 800 rabbits. The luxury food was less excessive, with only forty eight peacocks.

The first course was full of fowl, from pheasant and cygnet to crane and capon. There was some meat (beef and mutton, for instance) and a little fish. Any of these might have had sauces for dipping, and these sauces could have been anything from sharp orange to a condiment made from sweet currants. For those who liked gentler foods, there was a custard (although we do not know if it was sweet or savoury) and a thick soup. Crunchy battered fritters provided a sharp contrast in texture.

The second course also featured roast meat. Roast meat is still for many people the food of celebration, and the number and generosity of the meats at Richard’s banquet shows that it was a very special occasion indeed. Not all the meats in the second course were roasts, however. A delectable cold savoury jelly done up with a “device”(maybe a boar or a crown?) trapped the eye in its quivery midst. A peacock was cooked, and then its feathers were refitted and it was presented as if it were alive. Venison pieces were served stuffed, and fish was baked whole. The third course was similar, but with a few sweet dishes added to the mix. You can imagine the king nibbling at baked quinces or cinnamon custard, eating more of his favourite dishes, and called up his best friends and good servants to taste something delectable from his plate.

When all the flavours became overwhelming and mingled in the mouth, there were always bread and wafers and sweet nibbles.

With each course, a subtlety was served forth. Not just one, but a special one for the king and his companions and another for the nobles. Subtleties were grand displays – sometimes they were to eat, and sometimes they were simply to admire. Sometimes they were a prank, and sometimes they were deadly serious. The menu from Richard’s coronation banquet doesn’t tell us what the subtleties were, so our dreams are left to roam the possibilities. There might have been a castle, or a pastry boar, or a religious scenes spun of fine sugar. Each one of these would have been brought in with some display and served with great panache.

What did the nobles eat for their two courses? Deep pies and elegant pastries, full to the brim with meats in fabulous sauces. Gilded meats, with egg yolk giving a thin, fragrant crust to a roast chicken and turning it to pure gold. The meats were not all the same as those for the King, but they were varied, and the meat dishes were created to tantalise the palate. The cooks served rabbits served, and pike and veal and capons and geese and beef and mutton. Servers brought forth glorious swans and porpoises – certainly not everyday fare.

This food was fragrant and exotic with the spices of the world. English saffron gave dishes a subtle scent and a beautiful golden colour. A darker brown was given by saunders (a type of sandalwood) and alkanet brought out the reds and browns of the rich dishes. Several types of pepper were used, from the hot pepper we use today to the more complex flavours of grains of paradise and long pepper.

Almond would have subtly fragranced many dishes, with almond milk used in sauces and custards and sweets. Almond was not the only ingredient to make dishes rich and tasty – cheese and cream and butter and milk were all used in vast amounts in the kitchen. So were onions and fresh herbs. Each of these flavourings and colours would have been chosen carefully to make the most of the dish, to make it good to look on, to turn it into something both fragrant and delicious. This was, after all, a banquet for a king.

Delicate baskets were bought to serve food in, and strawberries, dates, oranges, figs, pomegranates, lemons and other fruit sat in the kitchen in enormous piles until they were demolished to feed the guests. Honey sweetened dishes, as did green ginger syrup and sugar. Gold leaf was bought to delicately decorate and rosewater to scent. There was so much rosewater bought in for the cooks to use that it would have been inevitable that a maid would spill some by accident. From that moment on an aura of roses would have permeated the kitchen.

Confectionery was made specially, and specialists created wafers for the notables to nibble along with their spiced wine when all the food was finished.

It was a very merry coronation – a great amount of happiness and and even greater amount of drink. There was some spiced wine for after the meal, but here were also nine tuns of table wine. And this is only the wine used for drinking – there was more wine in the food! A very merry occasion indeed, and a sumptuous start to a reign.

Books for Writing

I am at the beginning of writing a book. I’ve done this before, like, multiple times. The beginnings of books are fun. I start out with something–sometimes an opening line, sometimes an opening scene or chapter or (in at least one case) ten chapters, and I keep adding things in and following loose characters down dark alleys and exploring…

Then I realize that if it’s actually a book it will have to go somewhere, and the process of narrowing and aiming and refining begins. And at that point things often grind to a halt. This has happened before; it should be a familiar process. But every time, every. damned. time, I go through something like this, and every damned time I’m flummoxed.

Generally I have some idea of where I’m going. When I’ve described the process before I say that it’s a little like driving over countryside. I have a topographic map at my side, and there are perhaps some places I know I need to hit–his hill, that river, that quaint village over there. And I have an idea–sometimes quite a clear one–of what the destination is. In Point of Honour, for example, I knew that I was pointed toward a scene at the end at which my heroine and the heretofore unsuspected villain of the piece have a showdown. But when I was writing The Stone War I just knew that somehow my hero had to find a way to bring peace to an embattled New York. So… like that. I don’t have specifics, just a direction. Until the specifics reveal themselves.

But at some point that non-specific approach can make me grind to a halt. When I hit a “where is this going anyway” roadblock I have a number of tricks I use to get things moving again. They don’t always work; sometimes it just takes time, and then one day I wake up and start noodling and the block dissolves. Sometimes if I write a scene closer to the end of the book it helps me figure out that destination point (even if I don’t use that scene in the final book). Sometimes I retype the book up to the point where I ground to a halt (there are books where the first 5-10 chapters were retyped several times, to the detriment of my wrists). And sometimes I make a list of books to read that I feel, in some inchoate way, do something I want to be able to do with the book. What that something is is not anything very clear cut. For example, here’s a list I made this morning of books I need to re-read, in no particular order:

  • The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison
  • The War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull
  • I, Claudius, by Robert Graves
  • The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The Once and Future King, by TH White
  • The People, by Zenna Henderson

Others may occur…as I’m thinking about this, inspirations can spark other inspirations.

Does this give you an idea of what I’m writing about? If I can get this book to behave and decide where it’s going, it will be unlike anything else I’ve written (at least I think so–you don’t always know what your subconscious is throwing into the mix).

If you need me I’ll be in a corner with a pile of books, looking for inscrutable inspiration. And clarity. Ah, clarity.

Imagining History

One of the other ‘joys’ of 2005 was that many publications disappeared. Not as many as in the 1980s, where five stories of mine failed to publish after acceptance because the magazines collapsed, in two cases just before my stories were entering the world (they are all now readable in an anthology, Mountains of the Mind). I thought you might like to see a couple of non-fiction pieces that were accepted and then remained unseen. This week’s is:

Imagining history

History is a cultural artefact. It is easier to collect packaging labels or children’s toys or works of art and to display them as cultural artefacts than to think of history this way. Besides, we tend to think of books and articles about history as something intellectual and thoughtful and different, not as products of a time and place, and definitely not a part of our everyday lives. If you dissect the themes of every single work of history produced in a single decade, you could put them on show as the product of that decade. A decade in our lives. A product of our society. This display would help show how we think and how we feel, where we are coming from and where we think we are going to. Cultural artefacts. Our past. Our imagination. Ourselves on show.

The trouble is doing that distilling. It is hard to distil the common ideas in histories without being sucking into belief in them and worshipping at their shrine. How often have you read something by your favourite historian without quoting an idea or a fact at your next dinner party?

The trouble with cultural artefacts is they not only show who we are when we analyse them, they dictate who we are when we accept them. In other words, when you read a history, you start thinking the way it tells you to, unless you are careful. Some of this is the convincing argument put forward by the author, but some of this is the form of the written history itself. It is a sad fact that our forms of scholarly expression simplify how we imagine history: they help dictate how we think.

We need that scholarly description and analysis of the past. Never deny that. History is terribly, terribly important. The way history is written is hard to change, and indeed, may not need to be changed. Some of it comes from the need for written history to communicate clearly and to teach. Some of it is the need of historians to make a coherent argument and state a case. The writing of history has forms that are understandable and can be analysed and put on show, in our theoretical history display case.

What needs to be added to the writing of history is something within our own minds when we read. We need to think about what else is in the work under question besides facts and interpretations about the past, what is not covered by the driving argument and the scholarly analysis. Every single one of is who enjoys reading history should take a long and serious moment to think about history as a form of literature, about history as a cultural artefact. As a form of literature and as a cultural artefact, books of history embody lots of lovely complexities and that simplicity and elegance can ignore the reality of the cultural content being presented. The world of people’s cultural consciousness is not tidy, or logical. And it is not comfortable to think that what you read might dictate how you think.

How do you stop being dictated to? The terrible confusion of semiotics was trying to stop this happening. Semiotics was about unpacking rhetoric from reality, trying to sort out meanings and intended meanings and finding out what messages people took on board when they read. Deconstruction is a fine ideal. Alas, language got in the way of semiotic aims. Word after words after word was defined and interpreted until it became an impenetrable maze of meanings, only accessible by the experts

So if you want to read a history book and find out what you think about it without being trapped by the thoughts of others, what do you do?

There is a very old-fashioned technique, one that some teachers still teach to lucky students. First you read the history book. Then you start thinking about it. You look for its component parts. You unpack them and analyse them and think about them. Then you read the book or article again, with all this information in mind. It is not just a matter of the author using good sources and sensible interpretations, it is a question of what assumptions the author brings to his or her history. Do they use emotional language? Do they build up an argument so slowly and gently that you miss the stages and are convinced without knowing how you were convinced?

Reading history intelligently is like being a jury and instructing judge in one. It is a messy business.

Some patterns are quite clear and there are a bunch of books out there that can point to them. A classic book about how historians think about history is by EH Carr and there is a new study of how history had changed since his writing. These two together make a good manual for thinking about how historians think about the past. The best tool for thinking, though, is the human brain. Historians are human and have their enthusiasms and their failings. Look for those enthusiasms in their work. Look for their failings. Find out how they argue and why they argue.

When you read a history, you are not just deciphering the past. You are using the past as a way of imagining the present and enriching your life. When you see a busker on the street, you don’t ask an expert whether or not you are capable of judging how good the busker is. When you read a book of history you should be able to think for yourself. It is harder than laughing at a joke or cringing at an off-key chord, but it is also more rewarding.

If you accept the history presented by other people you will have a nice tidy world, with nice tidy opinions. This is the easy way out. The tough way out is exciting, challenging and puts you on the intellectual spot. It also brings history back into all our lives, and enriches all of us. History is not just or the academy, after all, since it is the past of all of us.

A Jewish Heroine of the Renaissance

Back in the 1990s, when themed anthologies were all the rage, I heard about one that was right up my alley and open to submission. Ancient Enchantresses, to be edited by Kathleen M. Massie-Ferch and Martin H. Greenberg for DAW. The editors wanted historical fantasy featuring strong women characters and magic, as is clear from the title. As I cast about for a subject, I found myself more and more – excuse the pun – disenchanted with Western European historical characters. It seemed to me that the women of interest had been portrayed more than frequently enough, and I had little interest in Celtic mythology. When I lamented my lack of inspiration to a friend – not a fantasy writer, but the director of a pre-school at a Jewish community center – she suggested I take a look at Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers, by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz (3rd ed, Biblio Press, 1988). Posthaste, I ordered a copy of the book and then pored through it. The chapters were short, more summations than in-depth histories. Although quite a few of them piqued my interest, only one suggested a story, that of Dona Gracia Nasi. The section began:

Unlike Benvenida Abrabanel, Beatrice de Luna belonged to a family that had chosen to become Marranos [converts to Catholicism – also known as conversos] so that they could remain in their home in Portugal. They had a successful business and a rich life. Beatrice was born in 1510, thirteen years after the expulsion of all practicing Portuguese Jews. Those remaining in Portugal worked hard to hide any Jewish allegiance from the world…

I devoured the section, all four pages of it, from Beatrice inheriting her husband’s share of an immense commodities business to her flight from one country after another, the Inquisition hot on her heels, to her imprisonment in Venice, her transformation into Dona Gracia Nasi (her childhood Jewish name), to her eventually settling in Turkey. But all this was so abbreviated as to be tantalizing without deep substance.

In the footnotes, however, I discovered that historian Cecil Roth had written an entire book about Gracia, The House of Nasi: Dona Gracia (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947). Although the book was out of print, I was able to borrow a copy from a local university library. Within those scholarly pages, I discovered a story as dramatic, tragic, and inspiring as anything out of Hollywood or New York.

I could have tried to tell Gracia’s entire story, but that would have meant either another abridged version or an extensive tome. I decided, therefore, to focus on a shorter period of her life: the flight from Antwerp (when Queen Marie of Burgundy, Regent of the Low Countries and sister to Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, schemed to marry off Gracia’s young daughter to one of her courtiers) to Venice. I’d visited Venice briefly during the time I lived in France (1991) and had vivid memories of the shadows under the bridges over the canals, the ancient plazas and towers, and the omnipresence of the sea. I wandered through the original ghetto, Il Ghetto, the old foundry district. I cut out an image from a tourist brochure of a person in the traditional Mardi Gras costume called bauta (including a white mask, tricorne hat, and a black tabarro, a short cloak) and pinned it on my bulletin board, hoping to find a story that would capture the sense of brooding menace. (As an aside, I’m not comfortable with clowns, either.) Armed with image, memory, and scholarly text, I embarked upon the tale.

“Unmasking the Ancient Light” is a tribute to the perseverance of a woman under extraordinary reversals and dangers. Life was perilous for European Jews in the Renaissance, as it had been in centuries earlier. Jews had been expelled from (among others) England (1290), France (1182, 1306, 1321, 1394), Spain (1492), and Portugal (1497). The series of expulsions forced Jewish communities to find safe (or safer) havens, in the Netherlands, Venice, and Islamic countries, such as the Ottoman Empire. They developed international systems of commerce and banking, as well as close familial and community ties. Gracia’s family was no exception. From Spain (“convert, leave, or die!”) they relocated to Portugal, then to Antwerp, and so forth. While in Italy, Gracia dropped the pretense of a converso and began finding ways to support her fellow exiles, whether lending material aid to individuals to becoming a patron of the arts to creating a printing house to publish Jewish texts in Hebrew and also Spanish (the Ferrera Bible) for those unable to read the ancient languages.

The list of Gracia’s accomplishments could easily fill the word count of a piece of short fiction, but I wanted her story to be more than a list of the amazing things she had done. I wanted to capture the spirit of the woman – if not historically accurate, as is always the challenge with fantasy – but one that would speak to the hearts of readers as Gracia had spoken across the centuries to me. I focused, then, on her struggle to survive the political intrigues and animosities of her time while preserving and nourishing the spirit of her people. The magic, as it were. Here I found a second inspiration in various treatments of the feminine aspect of the divine and the equivalence of the Shekhinah, sometime called the Indwelling Spirit, with light, without getting too dogmatic or theological.

As a final note, since I dutifully returned Cecil Roth’s book to the university library, my husband presented me with a copy of The Woman Who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi, A Jewish Leader During the Renaissance (Andree Aelion Brooks, Paragon House, 2002). If you want to know more about her, I recommend this highly accessible book (which has a ton of footnotes, for the historians among you).

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.

The End of Bruno and the Beginning of Something Wonderful

Twenty odd years ago, when we moved to San Francisco from New York, we bought a house. That flat statement doesn’t reflect the year of living in a rented flat, looking for a house that 1) met our inscrutable criteria for size, price, amenities (this above all: a garage!), proximity to public transport, and some degree of walkability. We were unbelievably fortunate that we sold our NYC apartment for enough to give us a competitive down payment, even in SF (which was then in a wave of utter insanity, real estate-wise). Still, what we wound up with was not one of the gorgeous Victorians with which San Francisco is blessed, but a modest two-bedroom house with a semi-finished attic which would do as a third bedroom, a garage, and a rather feral back yard. Over the years we have made improvements (a workable kitchen which is still my delight; new furnace, new water heater, new bathroom). And this week we started on a massive project: new back yard.

As I believe I have made clear in past posts, I am horticulturally impaired. I mean well. I have on occasion kept a plant (or, in college, several plants) alive for periods of time. I admire the gardens of other people. But I have no gardening imagination, and my attention span for nurturing the difficult or delicate is, um, nil. So whatever we did, it was going to be done by contractors, and it was not going to involve me out there with a trowel and a kneeling pad, carefully consigning plants into the earth.

After a considerable amount of shuffling around and talking to different people we settled on a landscape designer and began with a plan. The first thing was to rip everything out, down to the studs. There were several reasons for this. Most of the plants were not healthy, blackberry was invading from the back neighbor’s yard (coming up through the concrete patio and over the fence), the laundry-shed structure was ugly and rickety, and mostly what thrived was pigweed (aka amaranth). The concrete itself was in crappy condition. 

So: a complete redo, soup to nuts. Which started with taking the whole yard down to about a foot below its current level, the better to discourage invasive blackberry and other monsters: there will be a layer of plastic, then gravel, then a lot of sand, then pavers or plants.

After the initial estimate came out at… enough to buy a whole house in another less spendy part of the country… we scaled back our intentions. Above you see the initial plan for the pavers. The blank area to the right represents our house; the green circle is the one tree we’re keeping, right next to the back door. The triangular gray area will be the new patio, and the brown triangle is a pergola (shaded structure).

I have to say, both Danny and I found it hard to really wrap our heads around this as a “here’s what you’ll wind up with” model until we went out back (stepping carefully around the debris) and paced things out. Then we gave the designer some feedback, he made adjustments, and proceeded to send back an image with a rough planting plan thrown in. This time (maybe because there’s some color) I felt more comfortable. There’s a secondary seating area (in the lower left corner) and a “path” among the plantings.

What kind of plantings will there be? Not sure yet. We did specify one lemon tree to replace Bruno (the old, super-productive monster lemon tree that gave us lemons the size of my head, mostly pith and dry fruit). And we asked for native plants, things that don’t require a lot of maintenance. I wouldn’t be sad if there was some rosemary, which grows wild here. We’ll find out.

Right now we’re in demolition-land: the guys have spent the last week breaking up the better part of 1600 square feet of concrete. The laundry shed is gone, the decrepit washer and dryer, ditto. The unhealthy plants are a thing of the past. It’s a blank canvas.

I kind of enjoyed the homey sound of jackhammers, which to me call my childhood in New York City, where the noise was always a harbinger of something changing.

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.

Kidstock and Mr. Romantic

Black and White photo of four screens and 500,000 people on the Great Lawn
Photo: Daniel Hulshizer/Associated Press

When you have small children you do things with them. At least we did. This is how, 29 years ago, we (including two kindergarteners) wound up in Central Park in New York City, on a June afternoon, waiting for the premiere of the Disney animated film Pocahontas.

The event was much heralded, and a month or so before the event there was a lottery for tickets. I never win lotteries, but somehow we won this one. We received four tickets, and invited S, one of my daughter’s besties. Came the day, we packed up food and drink and blankets and umbrellas (drizzle threatened for a brief while) and jackets and… all the myriad things you wind up carrying around when you have children. And about 2pm, along with 100,000 of our fellow parents-and-kids, we hied ourselves to Central Park to stake a claim to a bit of ground to call our own among the sea of parents and small children on the Great Lawn. “My God,” my husband said as we were orienting ourselves (four screens! concession stands! phalanxes of port-a-potties! youthful humanity as far as the treeline!) “It’s Kidstock!” 

The movie could not start until dark, but this whole thing was being produced (massively, lavishly) by Disney, and if there is one thing that Disney excels at, it is moving people while keeping them just entertained enough that they don’t riot. Especially children. Once we had found ourselves a small holding, one of us (probably my husband) took the girls to reconnoiter. There were various entertainments offered on each of the four stages: singers and appearances by Disney Channel stars and so forth. But mostly our girls chattered and played on our small patch of turf. People we knew passed by on their way to find their own patch of turf. And then the family of A, a boy in the girls’ kindergarten class, came by. We scootched over so they could establish a beachhead adjacent to ours: one of the best tactics of parenting is strength in numbers. It’s much easier to sit on a lawn among 100,000 people if there are four adults watching 3 kids, and you can take turns paying attention.

The day stretched on. Food was consumed. Strolls around to stretch legs and alleviate boredom were taken. A Pocahontas doll was scored for each of the girls. The question “but when will it start” was asked many times. As hard as it is to believe now, this was before smart phones, so instead of a sea of tiny heads bent over screens it was a sea of seething childhood, wiggling and giggling and wishing the sun would set already. And we (Danny and I) began to notice a fascinating bit of kid behavior going on between the three five-year-olds. First, a note about my daughter Jules. She was a dreamy, highly imaginative kid into make-believe and stories. One of the things she did not go in for was the crushes that some kindergarteners indulged in. Her friend S, on the other hand, was the kind of small girl who watched the relationships around her, hawklike, and knew who in the class “liked” whom. S was a pretty girl and used, frankly, to being treated that way; she was always watching the people around her, angling for position. Then there was A, or as his mother referred to him, Mr. Romantic, a sunny, affectionate kid. And Jules was… clueless.

At last the movie starts. The music swells. We settle in to watch. But I kept getting distracted by the little drama that is playing out on our blanket. See, A sort of snuggles up to Jules–whether he meant it romantically or just felt comfortable with her, I don’t know. S, seeing this, sidles over to A’s other side, presenting herself to be snuggled. A does not oblige. S is clearly frustrated by his lack of interest. Meanwhile, Jules is sitting there, eyes on the screen, riveted to the story. Through the 80 minutes of the movie A is watches the movie and occasionally looks at Jules. S watches the movie but is distracted by A’s apparent preference for Jules over herself, and gets antsy and fidgety. Jules is oblivious.

The worst part of the whole experience was, of course, getting packed up and home. The 100,000 people who had arrived over the course of the afternoon now all wanted to be gone and home at the same time. A and his parents said good night and vanished in their own direction. Danny and I packed up our belongings, put jackets on the girls and joined the clog of people heading toward the exits and the West Side. I don’t remember whether we delivered S to her parents or they picked her up from us. I do recall an initial frostiness emanating from S, which I think baffled Jules–suddenly her friend was mad at her, but why? Eventually S was worn down by Jules’s cheery rhapsodies about the movie (“what was your favorite part?”) and her frostiness dissipated. They stayed friends for several years, until time and changes in schools did what the attentions of Mr. Romantic, on a starry New York City night, could not.

Plantagenet food

You may have noticed that, last week, food entered the conversation about a book. When I tell everyone with much sobriety that I’m an ethnohistorian, my friends laugh. Ethnohistory includes food, as they know very well indeed. I don’t merely feed friends historical artefacts, I once had a food history blog. It’s simple cause and effect. No-one wanted to hear about the narratives that are my intellectual heartland, but everyone wanted to try the food mentioned in them.

I do both. I read and analyse and I cook and analyse and it’s an enormous amount of fun. Your post this week, then, is a piece I wrote for Bibliobuffet, a US online literary magazine, during my 3 year stay with them. I still miss the editors – they were wonderful to work with. I raise a theoretical glass of the best Ancient Greek diluted wine in their honour.

What I’m actually drinking tonight is vinegar water from 19th century children’s books. It should be raspberry vinegar, to be fair, but I wasn’t trying to replicate North American children’s books. I am trying to work out the difference between Polish and Australian vinegar. In books for adults, vinegar water is often touted as handy for some forms of indigestion and it is, which is a useful side effect of this particular historical food exploration.

Interpreting Foodways

Plantagenet England has one of the great cuisines. We don’t know a great deal about the food eaten everyday by ordinary people, and we have far more information for the fifteenth century than for the twelfth, but the best food on the table during that period and the most outstanding menu is some of the best food anywhere.

All but one of my favourite medieval dishes come from English manuscripts. These manuscripts are often regarded as French, because the language and the food style was French but there are differences between English and French food, to my mind. The English seem to have been cleverer with spices and to be far more aware of the look of the food: contrasting colours and clever presentation play a part in making the food delightful. Pomesmoille is apples and almond and can be made as a custard or as fresh and even crunchy. Crespez are deep-fried pancakes cookable almost instantly.

I begin my food history classes with this explanation, illustrated with recipes. I then spend session after session looking into the nature of the food: how it was cooked, where ingredients came from, what the manuscripts were like, how to interpret recipes and, most importantly, that my grand statements about the glory of the cuisine can be contradicted with accuracy and can still be precisely correct.

Despite the great interest so many of us have in this period of English history, it was before the time of printed cookbooks. We don’t have representative recipes, only occasional recipes. We don’t know what cooks made every day, only the food that a few people thought deserved writing down. The further back in time we go during the time of the Plantagenets, the less information we have and the more we rely on small amounts of data to interpret large aspects of food culture. We know a great deal, and at the same time, we don’t know nearly enough to make firm and definite conclusions.

Food history requires the mind of Sherlock Holmes alongside a vast raft of technical skills. And with all that, we have huge gaps in our knowledge. This doesn’t mean we don’t have knowledge. We have a great deal. We can argue for this position or that using the known cookbooks, using evidence from literature and from archival records, using the amazing amount of food-related archaeological material that has survived. The problem is bringing it together.

Ten years ago I thought I knew, and I told everyone who cared to listen what a glorious cuisine it was. I still suspect it might be, but… I want more evidence.

What happened was that I read Bridget Ann Henisch’s The Medieval Cook. Henish is one of the outstanding scholars in the field. She knows her stuff. And yet, in her book, she took material from this year or from that, evidence from this quarter and the other. Sometimes one part of her evidence was compatible with another and sometimes I stopped and wondered how on earth she could create an overview using just a few pieces of evidence that were centuries apart. None of her other writing does this, but The Medieval Cook is a popular overview and it’s very tempting to bring everything together and to show that we have an understanding of the period. That’s what books about the Middle Ages are for, to communicate an understanding. Audiences generally ask for firm and definite conclusions as part of this understanding.

I wrote the chapter on food in The Middle Ages Unlocked. I had much less material to draw on than Henisch, for The Middle Ages Unlocked covers a lot less time. I wrote very cautiously. “I don’t know this,” I found myself saying about this and about that, and did more research and discovered that no-one really knew this. At one stage I wrote a list of subjects that I thought I knew but had to doubt because, when I looked for the evidence, what I found was yet another general conclusion drawn from The Forme of Cury (possibly the most-used medieval cookbook for people wanting to reconstruct English food) or assumptions about home gardens in Sussex drawn from what was grown in Paris.

I took my list into class and I asked students, “How much do you know about the food we eat, here, in Canberra, in the twenty-first century?” The answers were enlightening. They helped me understand how I and so many other people can say “We know this cuisine” about Plantagenet cooking when, really, we only know some things about it.

Some students used their home cooking as the absolute arbiter of normal food for Canberra. Others used Women’s Weekly cookbooks. Occasionally, a student would collect data from other students and say “This composite, that’s how we need to see Canberra’s food.” These data-oriented students were the ones who paid attention to my original discussion about the method of studying food history: it’s data based. And our database is insufficient.

Most scholars realise this most of the time and try to talk about what we can know, and to limit claims. Henisch is one of the good scholars and this is how she normally works. The shape and content of The Medieval Cook, however, is the shape and story of the Middle Ages for a more popular audience. It’s a different type of story about the Middle Ages. Far easier to read. Far more entertaining. Far easier to find problems with.

We have a set of archetypal views of the Middle Ages. Popular books will often take one or another of them, because they’re far easier to write about than a more sophisticated (read ‘crazy-complicated’) analysis. Those archetypal views, in food terms, are like the Canberra students who think that every Canberra family eats like their own, or that Women’s Weekly cookbooks represent Canberra cooking. There is truth in them, for some people eat like that student’s family and a lot of people learn cooking from the Women’s Weekly cookbooks. There’s knowledge in this approach. Sometimes there’s very good knowledge in this approach. Understanding is harder.

What I’ve done is to keep all my favourite recipes. I’ll make pomesmoille whenever my favourite apples are in season, and I’ll give all my students my favourite joke about crespez being medieval junk food but… I teach all about those data sources and how to interpret them and send students to them whenever I can. I encourage them to find more data sources (archaeological reports and archival material have so much material in them!) and to help build up a more realistic picture of complex foodways over a long period of time. Students who want easy answers hate me for this. There are fewer soundbites. It’s much more exciting, however, for it’s something that anyone can do: build up a personal and sophisticated understanding of foodways. Learn to see the Middle Ages as continually surprising, continually exciting.