I Got Plenty of Outrage…

I really do. Naturally occurring, home grown “Oh, my God, REALLY?” outrage in response to the news, or bad behavior I encounter in the wild, or things that hurt my friends and family. The outrage in these cases is real, and often leads me to do useful things to help the people who are being affected by… well, whatever it is. These are outrageous times, after all.

But… There’s so much manufactured outrage in email subject lines. And it does exactly what it’s NOT intended to do, which is to make me click DELETE. Which means I’m not getting to the really important part of these emails, the fundraising part. The way to loosen my purse-strings is not to make me angry, and I wish more email campaigns got that. Outrage (and its cousin, Mind-numbing Fear), and combative team spirit don’t work on me these days. I’m not sure they ever did. How do these subject lines hit you? Continue reading “I Got Plenty of Outrage…”

Gossip and Community

The internet is practically an engraved invitation to indulge in gossip and rumor. It’s so easy to blurt out whatever thoughts come to mind. Once posted, these thoughts take on the authority of print (particularly if they appear in some book-typeface-like font). Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to question something when it appears in Courier than when it’s in Times New Roman? For the poster of the thoughts comes the thrill of instant publication. Only in the aftermath, when untold number have read our blurtings and others have linked to them, not to mention all the comments and comments-on-comments, do we draw back and realize that we may not have acted with either wisdom or kindness.

To make matters worse, we participate in conversations solely in print, without the vocal qualities and body language that give emotional context to the statements. I know a number of people who are generous and sensitive in person, but come off as abrasive and mean-spirited on the ‘net. I think the very ease of posting calls for a heightened degree of consideration of our words because misunderstanding is so easy.

I’ve been speaking of well-meaning statements that inadvertently communicate something other than what the creator intended. I’ve been guilty of my share of these, even in conversations with people with whom I have no difficulty communicating in person. What has this to do with gossip?
Gossip is either one of the forms of glue that bind a community together“news,” as it wereor else a pernicious form of social control, of putting people down/who’s in-who’s out/of taking glee in the misfortunes of others, of basking in reflected and unearned glory.

Where this is leading is that such statements can be hurtful and damaging whether they are true or not. They are particularly embarrassing to the tellers when they are false and that falsehood is revealed. Human beings are peculiar creatures. When we have injured someone by passing on a rumor, false or not, instead of doing what we can to ameliorate the situation, we set about defending ourselves. “But it was true!” is one tactic, or “I didn’t know!” or “Blame the person who told this to me!” Or we find some way to shift responsibility to the person who is the subject of the gossip. Even well-meaning people, people who see themselves as honest and kind, people who should have known better than to spread rumors, do this.

I believe that when we engage in gossip or rumor, we damage not only the person we have spoken ill of, but the bonds of trust in our community. We divide ourselves into those who are safe confidantes and those who are tattlers, between those who are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and those who will use any excuse to criticize and condemn us. Continue reading “Gossip and Community”

I Love My Body

I love my body. As a woman raised in a society that teaches women that their bodies are imperfect and inferior, I bring to this love a sense of heart-felt victory. 

It is important to note that I did not spend my life trying to hammer my body into some artificial idea of perfection. Even if I had one of the body types that have been pre-selected as perfectable — and I do not — it wouldn’t have worked because I did what everyone does all the time every day: I got older. 

Being old — a subjective state that depends on what you’re trying to do — makes it impossible to be perfect in any physical sense. And like most young people, I didn’t realize how cute I was when I was young. I was still struggling with not being “right”.

Because all women get that lesson. We’re not right.

I’m discussing this in terms of women, because I’m most familiar with how that happens. Men, at least straight white men within a range of body types, don’t get these lessons the same way. 

There are a number of other body issues that come up for those who are trans or nonbinary or otherwise not part of what society has deemed to be the way things are. The history of mocking gay men as too feminine and lesbians as too male sets the stage for even harsher abuse of trans and nonbinary people.

All people raised as women, in pretty much all cultures, get the message that their bodies are imperfect. In some cultures, they are even treated as the source of all sin (evangelical Christians, for example). Their bodies are wrong.

I learned to love my body by taking up martial arts. I know that’s a stretch, because one aspect of martial arts is learning to do things with your body, some of which are very difficult. And further, martial arts training is often based on some very male thinking, so the idea of what bodies are supposed to do and how they are supposed to look makes the assumption that women are inferior in some way.

And yet, training first in karate and later more extensively in Aikido taught me to love my body, because I figured out that I learned things by using my body, that I was not just the person who thought, but also the person who moved.  Continue reading “I Love My Body”

Strangers Aren’t the Danger

Back in the Sixties, there was a quote going around that always resonated with me:

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

I just came up with a corollary to that theory:

If they can make you afraid of the wrong things, they don’t have to do anything about the real dangers.

That could apply to many things, but for today I’m going to focus on the fear-mongering directed at women.

There’s a bit going around Facebook these days that lists all the things women should do to protect themselves. This one reads:

it’s about to get dark earlier.. make sure you fill up your gas tank prior to nightfall.. keep an extra charger with you at all times.. sign up for AAA….. Check your tires and oil… No ATM runs in the evening. Park in well lit areas. Only unlock your doors if you are immediately getting out. Pay attention to your surroundings.. HEADS UP PHONES DOWN… Stay safe Queens.

This one is focused on people who drive, but something similar goes around social media regularly listing all the things women need to do to keep themselves safe when they’re out in public.

Those lists are always followed by multiple comments about how awful men are and how unfair it is that women have to do these things to stay safe when instead men should change.

I’ve got three problems with this list.

First, this is once again advice on how women should limit their lives to stay safe. As the commenters observe, we’re all getting really tired of this.

Secondly, that advice is really about protecting yourself from robbers and carjackers, so the useful parts (such as keep your car in good running condition) apply to everyone, not just women. In fact, men are more often the victims of this kind of street crime than women, perhaps because some men assume being male means you don’t have to pay attention.

But most importantly, when women are told how to keep themselves safe, the implication is that they need protection from sexual assault, rape, and murder. And that brings me to my most important objection: this advice, though often well-meaning, makes women think the real danger they face is from strangers.

And it’s not.  Continue reading “Strangers Aren’t the Danger”

Food in Fantasy Fiction

This is the abbreviated version of a talk I gave in Ireland over the weekend for Octocon, the Irish National Science Fiction Convention, when I was at my desk on the other side of the world. I thought it might be a pleasant interlude in a difficult year. Even abbreviated it is not that short.

I’ve kept the beginning, but taken out much detail. If you want to see what the writers actually say (and I chose seven novels because they are so good, and the eighth because I had something very particular to say, so it’s worth chasing all but one novel and looking at those first pages) scroll down to the end, where I’ve given a list of the books I talk about (with links). One day I need to do a presentation somewhere on food in the openings of US fantasy novels. That would be a great deal of fun.

The talk alone meant I spent much of Monday cooking.

When I told folks that my new research is partly on food and foodways in fantasy, many people nodded sagely and said, “Ah, stew. So often when we talk about food in fantasy, we begin with Diana Wynne Jones and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Diana Wynne Jones pointed out the elephant in the room when she said that “Stew is what you will be served to eat every single time” in Fantasyland. ” The vision of stew and arguments about stew are wonderful and often funny, but they obscure what writers actually do with food in fiction. That’s what I’ll explore today.

Food is not just something we eat because we kinda like living, it’s also critical to how we shape and explain our lives and even to helping us trust the stories we read and the stories we tell. Today I shall take eight writers, four Irish and four Australian, and I shall look at eight novels. I shall specifically look at the opening of each novel, for the beginning is a very fine place to start to learn about food in fantasy.

One of the things that got me interested in food and foodways was how food was displayed at the Museum of Melbourne some years ago. The food narrative for most of Australia in the museum was school lunchboxes or Charlene’s wedding cake from Neighbours. Food was presented as a developed part of identity and story. And then… there was a special room for the food and foodways of Indigenous Australians. It consisted of a garden.

The very first novel I chose to look at was by Lisa Fuller because she challenges the Museum of Melbourne’s depiction of Indigenous Australian foodways in Ghost Bird. Fuller presents one family and their foodways in detail and with much cleverness. When you reach the end of Ghost Bird, it’s possible to cook at least some of the family dishes. Not because there are recipes (there are no recipes) but because the descriptions of food and foodways are so very evocative and sophisticated. Food and foodways are a profound part of this novel. They don’t just explain the relationship of the Indigenous Australian family with White Australia and with modern science, however, foodways explain the relationships between people. They elegantly refute that garden in the Museum of Melbourne by showing us that ingredients in nature are only one small part of real foodways.

What about Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke? Like Ghost Bird, it’s about family and loss and tension. Looking at the food in the early part of Other Words for Smoke, however, instantly demonstrates their differences.

First, food is not the factor that brings the initial narrative together.

When does food first appear, then? And what form does it take? It appears when the novel proper begins, and food is a critical trigger for thought at that point. It shows us a lot about the character, what they see, what aspects of what they see need interpretation. It is also, just as in Fuller’s novel, a critical component of culture. As I read out the quote, it hurt my ears. Food delineates cultural differences so precisely in Other Words for Smoke that I can hear how wrong my accent is for this novel wrong. The novel itself feeds on a very precise, even mimetic everyday. Everything that pushes us away from that everyday is going to hurt.

Food is no less important in Sam Hawke’s City of Lies than in the previous two works. City of Lies is an adventure fantasy set in a secondary world, full of politics and intrigue and danger. Food is twisted into it, right from the beginning. The very first page of the novel itself links food with poison intimately and those links last throughout the novel. We know foodways through the politics of poison.

In one way, Hawke’s depiction of food and foodways is as complex as Fuller’s. It’s a whole cuisine. Like both Fuller’s and Griffin’s, it’s closely connected to the plot. There is one big difference. The food is in a secondary world, which means that Hawke describes it in a lot more detail. The trick of secondary worlds is that, if you want to read one that is quite, quite different to our own, the world building is often detailed. Hawke takes an almost anthropological approach to describing food, while using the type of descriptive prose that is the hallmark of many secondary world novels.

Why do I not instantly want to cook the delectable dishes Hawke describes? First, they’re not written to tempt cooks. The palate touches on taste (but not in detail) but it’s also strongly visual.

More importantly, Hawke undermines her own descriptions of food by pointing out their relationship with poison. Food and foodways are vehicles for delivering poison and plotpoints in an alternate world.

Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne is also a secondary world fantasy, but the only mention of food in the first two pages is grass and water for a hungry horse. How much need for food is there in adventure fantasy? It depends on the adventure fantasy. It also depends on the fashion in publishing, which possibly brings us back to stew, which once was most definitely a fashion food for fantasy. The lack of food in the opening of The Poison Throne, then, signals to the reader its sub-genre. Kiernan is not the only fantasy writer who uses signals in this way and, notably, uses lack of food in this way. The critical insight here is that no matter how much we all need food in our everyday, we don’t all need food in all our novels.

Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything presents food from the very first line where a toaster explodes. After the toaster dies, Izzy’s mother finishes the coffee. The toaster and the coffee give us food and foodways, both.

There are many ways of interpreting this. What I’d like to focus on now is how mundane the scene is and yet how it sets up the construct that is critical for the story: two worlds meeting. The family bonds through food and through the destruction of the toaster, which is also important, for it announces that this is not a novel about an impossibly dysfunctional family.

Long uses the small to foreshadow the big, just like Fuller, and prepares readers for what will come. The world of the novel will change and, in a mere two pages, Long has given us both the familiar world and a stake in it.

Garth Nix’s The Left Handed Booksellers of London is another novel I get to dip into twice, for it has a prologue and an opening. This is another novel in which food plays a minimalist role. There is no food in either the prologue nor the opening proper.

Unlike Kiernan’s book, The Left Handed Booksellers of London is not a secondary world fantasy. It’s set in a world much like ours, but with magic. When food finally appears, it’s the kind of food that one would buy for quick sustenance travelling through the UK.

This means of depicting culture depends very much on readers already having some cultural knowledge about the setting. It works in The Left Handed Booksellers of London because so much of world culture in this novel revolves around a popular knowledge of UK culture. Real culture is a lot more complex and dynamic than the stuff we think we know about a place or a time: the novel is a popular, simplified depiction. Nix’s novel is for the international market, and the way Nix uses food in it tells us this, very clearly.

Dierdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths is the polar opposite even though the technique in the first pages has something critical in common with both The Left-Handed Booksellers of London and Sam Hawke’s City of Lies. It shares with Nix’s novel the absence of food in the first two pages.

Foodways are implied, however, as part of a particular focus on the material world that binds the novel tightly together.

It shares descriptions of plants with Hawke’s City of Lies. The uses of plants reflect the cultural use of a plant, just as Hawke’s did, but the plants are plants we know and the uses are more varied.

The cultural elements in Perfectly Preventable Deaths come from a quite different direction to those in The Left-handed Booksellers of London or City of Lies. They are carefully crafted to draw us into a complex and perilous world. This is a very different kind of fantasy to Nix’s. The novel depicts a strong local culture. Food and foodways are an inherent part of the culture and appear in this way throughout the story. They are not strong in the opening because the opening sets up the protagonist’s view of this culture and all the cultures that impinge upon it during the tale.

The last book is by me. My fiction is not particularly special, but there’s one element that I know for certain about my own work and that I need to address. That element is authorial intent.

Ask me and I’ll write about authorial intent and its relationship to world building and to prejudice and to all kinds of wonderful things. Here, today, I want to talk about what the author actually intends when they write. When we try to work out what the author intends in the book we’re reading, there’s a certain amount of guesswork. When the writer claims something about their work (as I am doing here) it’s important to test their claims.

I have a cookbook and bits in other books that show clearly my relationship to food. I was a professional blogger on food history for three years and have given academic papers on it. I ran banquets for Conflux, the Canberra science fiction convention. There is an enormous amount of data on my responses to food and foodways. You don’t have to trust what I say here – you can test every single claim I make. Let me do some claiming, then.

The opening of Borderlanders is full of food. I used food to make it clear that the novel was set in contemporary Australia and I to communicate contemporary Australia to those who know it not. I wanted the opening to feel not-too-exotic, because magic will intervene in the plot soon enough. All those are surface reasons. I had a deeper reason: I set up a character to look as if they are the hero… and they’re not. From the beginning, this novel reinterprets the hero’s journey. I wanted everyday and very mundane food to give the right reader a sense of ambivalence about her quest.

That’s eight authors and eight reasons for food. Let me recap them.

1. In Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird, food and foodways presented a highly-political argument in a non-threatening way.

2. In Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke food is used to delineate subtle cultural points. In doing this, it reminds us that fantasy is a variety of literature, and not a lesser artform.

3. In Sam Hawke’s City of Lies food and foodways are undermined in order to present another aspect of society entirely.

4. In Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne, food, or lack thereof, is presented as a clear signal of sub-genre.

5. Ruth Frances Long’s A Crack in Everything uses food and foodways as vehicles to prepare for a plot twist and a changed world.

6. Garth Nix’s The Left Handed Booksellers of London uses food as a minor part of a culture we think we know, making the novel easier for more readers and more likely to sell in larger numbers across the world.

7. Dierdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths gives us food as a minor aspect of the depiction of the most important character.

8. And, finally, by looking at authorial intent in my own Borderlanders, I demonstrated that food in fantasy novels may not actually be merely one of these things. It can be several at once.

 

The List of Books

Lisa Fuller Ghost Bird

Sarah Maria Griffin Other Words for Smoke

Sam Hawke City of Lies

Celine Kiernan The Poison Throne

Ruth Frances Long A Crack in Everything

Garth Nix The Left Handed Booksellers of London

Dierdre Sullivan Perfectly Preventable Deaths

Gillian Polack Borderlanders

Politics in Families

Blaine A. White, Creative Commons

Okay, we’re living in a moment when politics are… a fraught subject. I listened the other night as my 25-year-old daughter and my husband–who are not actually on opposite sides of the fence–had a 45-minute conversation fight discussion exchange about something. My daughter has admirable patience when talking with people of opinions that do not march with hers. With  her parents (whose politics are not far from hers at all), well  the word “scolding” comes to mind. But we are her parents, so there’s that.

The fraughtness of politics within families sometimes has less to do with opinions than with family dynamics. This is one reason why I almost never talk politics (or religion) with my brother. He and I are so far apart on the political spectrum that it’s hard to believe we share any DNA at all. Continue reading “Politics in Families”

I’m baaack…

I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. I managed to get an infected bone. My finger is still infected but, bit by bit, I’m back to normal work. Routine has been very hard to regain, because of on and off restrictions due to the pandemic. I was restricted until I was vaccinated and now I’m vaccinated, my whole city is in a very thorough lockdown.

What have I been doing with my time? I’m working on my PhD. It’s the right kind of research for right now because I don’t actually need libraries at this point. I am being as clever as I can and working from my computer. It’s literary studies doctorate and my case studies are fantasy novels and it’s the perfect thing to do when life is sour. In The Wizardry of Jewish Women I made a joke about a demon-infested lemon tree throwing sliced lemons at one of the characters so imagine me turning those lemon slices into a delicious drink. It’s the best way of handling the impossible.

I’m a little public for a bit, too, because of Australia’s Reading Hour.

Every year Australians are encouraged to stop for an hour and read, and the world of libraries and schools and bookshops works together to encourage that reading. One of the key ways they promote it is to nominate writers as Ambassadors, and me, I’m one this year. This year is a bit light-on for events, because everything has to be online, but there is one that is free. Three writers (Sophie Masson, Juliet Marillier and me) will be chatting about books. Here is the link to it: https://www.newc.org.au/what-writers-read.html

While I was dealing with everything, my new novel came out. I call The Green Children Help Out a Jewish superhero book, but it’s a bit more than that. I wanted to build a contemporary magical world where the ground crunched underfoot, that is, it felt as if we could be there. I wanted the people who were saving it to be people who are heavily undervalued in our own world but are seriously, seriously cool. And I wanted to show that coolness. Now I want to move to that world, for it’s COVID-free and being Jewish is not something that needs explaining all the time. Also, I want to be one of the Green Children. I have absolutely no idea what my superpower would be, but I’m open to suggestions.

How Stories Save Us

Stories can heal and transform us. They can also become beacons of hope.

Quite a few years ago, when I was going through a difficult personal time, I came across a book about the inherent healing power of telling our stories. No matter how scattered or flawed our lives may appear, as we tell our stories, we gain something. Patterns emerge from seeming chaos, and our lives begin to make sense. It may be dreadful, agonizing sense, but even tragedies have order and consequence. I found that over time, the way I told my story changed, reflecting my recovery process and new insight.

The mirror side of story-telling is story-listening. While a confidential diary or journal can be highly useful, having someone hear our words can be transformative, especially if all that person does is listening. Not judging, not analyzing, not wondering how to respond, just taking in our words, a silent partner on our journey. Often we feel less alone in retrospect, no matter how isolated and desperate we might have been at the time. Additionally, a compassionate listener invites us to be kinder with ourselves.

Perhaps this is how Twelve Step programs work, apart from any Higher Power mysticism or Steps: that by simply hearing our own voices relate our histories, and having the experience of being heard, we open the door to viewing ourselves through the lens of new possibilities.

Personal storytelling calls for discretion, of course. Although it may be true that “we are only as sick as our secrets,” casually (or not-so-casually) violating a confidence from someone else is not the same as choosing to include the listener in our own private lives. Some of us never learned healthy boundaries about what is safe to share, and when, and with whom. We, or others, can be harmed by indiscriminate broadcasting of embarrassing, illegal, or otherwise sensitive information. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about, on the other hand, is as much about the journey as it is the facts.

Stories can get us through dark times by giving us hope and inspiring empathy. Stories work by creating a bond between the narrator or central character and the listener/reader. Who wants to read a story about a person you care nothing about? And if that appealing character has a different history or journey, or learns something the reader never experienced, so much the better. We accompany them into darkness and out again. Continue reading “How Stories Save Us”

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 10

We’re home! Back in Boston. I have never felt so tired in my life. I finished the deck well after dark on the last day and moved on to other essential repairs—such as securing the planks on a little bridge that were flipping up like a cartoon gag when you stepped on them. Here’s the final deck railing section, and the finished project the day we left:

By some miracle, we made it to San Juan in time to catch our JetBlue flight, after a near-all-nighter cleaning up the construction zone (the whole house) and packing. I tried to sleep on the flight, but it was a lost cause. Now, though, I’m all refreshed (hah!) after ten hours of sleep in my own bed. My own bed! I plan to rest for a week. Maybe two.

I thought I’d close this year’s Chronicles with some stray oddities.

Last year I wrote about the Ho Chi Dog Trail we’d discovered running through the property. Stray dogs had found a gap in the fence at one end and periodically came racing through in well-behaved packs, going about their business and disappearing up near the car gate. It was kind of fun, but not the sort of thing weekend renters want to see. I found the gap and plugged it with metal fence rails hastily zip-tied into place. That was a year and a half ago. This year, the gap was back: one rail knocked out and cast aside. Did the dogs do it? Who knows? But mark my words, they won’t do it again. We had the rails welded into place, by the fencing crew who were on the job last week putting up real fence in place of the mangled old cyclone fencing.

Speaking of putting things up, one small but important task was figuring out an appealing way to hang curtains in a room with concrete walls and awkward corners. Allysen came up with copper pipe as a great curtain rod, and I figured out a way to carve blocks of wood to drop them into, so they’d look good and be easy to take down, and yet not fall down when you wanted them to stay up. Securing them to the walls was the hardest part. Even with a hammer drill, that old concrete was tough!

I’ve yet to address a crucial subject: craft beers. They have a number of really good craft beer makers here on the island. You can buy their beers in the grocery stores now, which previously you couldn’t. My favorite is Ocean Lab Brewing Company’s Ocean Ruby Grapefruit Pale Ale. But weirdly, you still can’t get it in restaurants! If you ask for Puerto Rican beer, you get your choice of Medalla or Medalla. (Pronounced “meh-dah-ya.”) Medalla’s a light lager, on a par with Bud Light—decent enough, if you’re hot and tired and want to glug something to quench your thirst. But as a tasty brew with a meal? Not even close. When we asked the restauranteurs why they don’t carry the local craft beers, they said, “Not enough demand. Only the tourists want it.” Well, but… don’t you want to attract tourists?

Still, my preferred drink down here is rum punch, following a recipe created by Allysen’s dad, Phil Palmer. “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, and four of weak.” Fresh-squeezed lime juice, dark sugar syrup, amber rum, and water (in the form of crushed ice). Top with Angostura Bitters and fresh-ground nutmeg. Simple, and unbeatable. We’ve cut the sugar some, and are more straightforward about weak. So now we say, “One of sour, one-and-a-half of sweet, three of strong, and forget the weak.” (Okay, we still use the ice, of course.)

(At home, in fact, my recipe for frozen margaritas is based on this formula: “One of sour, one of sweet, three of strong, and three of stronger.” Lime juice, dark sugar, Triple Sec, and tequila. And lots of ice.)

Here’s the final rum punch of the trip, and a fitting close to this year’s Ponce Chronicles:

Ponce Chronicles 2021, Part 9

If you haven’t been following, I’ve been building a deck. Actually, replacing a rotted-out wooden deck beside the swimming pool at Casarboles, my wife’s family’s place in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I’m in a race against the clock (we leave for home in two days, having already extended our stay by two weeks), and it’s been a bear. In the middle of it all, I developed an ear infection, probably from protecting my ears with noise-canceling earbuds, complete with ground-in dirt. Did I let that slow me down? I did not! (Well, maybe a little.)

Here’s a sort of stop-motion record of what I’ve been doing:

Grinding and painting the steel supports…

Last floor plank laid, yours truly ready to keel over…

The new floor, shown to the audience in daylight by a far more attractive model; old, rickety railing system still in place…

Old railing gone, new railing begun… two days to finish…

Okay, back to work!