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.


When I visit places, I often spend time thinking about whether I’d like to live there, whether it would have the things that I want in my life, whether it would inspire me in new ways.

I’ve done this all my life and, in fact, when I’ve spent lengths of time in other places (like in Seattle for Clarion West or in Antigua, Guatemala, to study Spanish), I did try to fit myself into what living there full time would be like.

And I enjoy doing that, even if I’m only in a place for a few days. I always fantasize about what it would be like to live there.

While part of that is simply the joy of figuring out what the local patterns are, I think there’s another reason I do it, a deeper one: I don’t feel rooted anywhere in particular.

Now I am, as most people know, a native Anglo Texan. My people go back around five generations, pretty much as long as there have been Anglo people in the state. (I use Anglo in the usual Texas sense to mean “White, non-Hispanic.”)

I am certainly tied to that culture in many ways. It certainly comes out in my accent, some of my favorite music, some pride in my ancestors, especially the strong women of my family on both sides.

I’m also tied to it – as are many other Texans – by a rejection of some things that are also inherent in it, such as racism and exponential growth.

But while I still feel the ties – positive and negative – and love much of the country there (despite the weather), I don’t feel this deep connection to the land.

Part of that, I suspect, is because the land represented by Texas has only been controlled by Anglo Texans for 200 years.

When you look at the Indigenous populations of the Americas and how long they’ve been here, 200 years is laughable. Continue reading “Rootless”

Where’s Deborah? Two Audiobook Reviews

I’ve been posting less frequently, especially my book reviews. Fear not, I have not departed for illiterate climes. I value our community. And I do have things to say about the books I’ve been enjoying. I just have been reading and writing much less.

In mid-May, I experienced a sudden, severe decrease in the visual acuity of my dominant eye. I’ve been to three doctors so far, including a retinal specialist, and they can’t find the cause. The good news is that they’ve been able to rule out the Big Bads, which is reassuring but frustrating. I’ve tried wearing an eye patch, which gives me better vision through my non-dominant eye, but the loss of depth perception drives me crazy. (Who knew how much depth perception matters when reaching for a mouse?) Meanwhile, my time at the computer is limited (ditto piano, unless I’m playing from memory). Eyestrain headaches set in after only a short time. Hence…

Audiobooks to the rescue!

I discovered the delights of recorded books when they came on reel-to-reel and then cassettes. And then CDs. I still have a collection of my favorite novels and classes. Fast forward a number of years to oh joy! I can not only check out physical audiobooks from my local library, I can borrow digital editions, too! I got into borrowing through the discovery of many podcasts featuring stories read aloud (my favorite was “Phoebe Reads A Mystery”). Alas, these were usually one chapter per episode, liberally laced with ads. Not so the library editions (which also pay royalties to the author and narrator through the price the library pays for its copies).

I’ve worked my way through most of Alexander McCall Smith’s books (especially the “Lady Detective Agency” series), Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, and Anne Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries.

What have I been listening to recently? Read on for my most recent audiobook reviews!


Making It So: A Memoir, written and narrated by Patrick Stewart (

Be still, my heart. Sir Patrick Stewart’s life in his own words, in his own voice. Continue reading “Where’s Deborah? Two Audiobook Reviews”

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.

What Matters

I just finished taking my second drawing class of the year.

I’ve always wanted to be able to draw, but back when I was a kid I was told I was no good at it, and somehow I took that to heart. After all, I had lousy handwriting (still do) and poor fine motor skills. And the myth that you had to have “talent” to do all kinds of things was overpowering back then.

Maybe it’s still overpowering.

Anyway, I’ve now taken two drawing classes, picked up some technical skills, and lost my fear.

I’m not doing this for any particular purpose. I just want to draw. It seems to me that understanding the basics of drawing – the tools, the techniques, the ways of seeing – is very useful regardless of whether you want to be serious about making art.

The underlying context I picked up as a kid was that if you aren’t naturally good enough something, you shouldn’t waste time on it. Only do things you’re good at.

And of course, if you did have enough talent to be seen as good at something creative, you were told you shouldn’t do it because it wasn’t “practical.” How are you going to make a living with that, everyone said.

Our drawing teacher told us this week that he quit his career in architecture to make art full time and is so much happier. Practicality isn’t everything.

He also told us he really enjoyed teaching us and he was very good at being encouraging about our efforts while still showing us what we missed.

I think part of the reason he liked teaching us was because we were a bunch of grownups taking a class for its own sake and invested enough to do the work. Because the work is the whole point here.

That was one of things I always liked about teaching Aikido: people were serious and were there to learn. People trained because they wanted to train, not with any larger goal in mind.

I trained for those reasons. And, by the way, I was not “naturally good” at Aikido. I just loved it – and karate before it – too much to be discouraged.

Continue reading “What Matters”

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.

The Chatbots Miss the Point of Writing

Archangels of Funk by Andrea HairstonThis week I had the joyful and inspiring experience of going in person to hear an interview with Andrea Hairston, who was finishing up a tour in support of her new book, Archangels of Funk.

At one point, she mentioned that she had started working on that book about 20 years back, but realized that she had to know more about her character – and specifically about her character’s ancestors – before she could write it.

So she wrote two other books, Redwood and Wildfire, and Will Do Magic for Small Change, so that she could write Archangels of Funk. I should point out that both of those books are incredible works in and of themselves. Which is to say that she created art while building the framework for more art.

But what also hit me was how antithetical her process was to what the so-called “AI” chatbots (that is, the large language models or LLMs) promise: frictionless writing. I mean, she did a lot of research plus wrote two complete novels to figure out what she needed to know to write the latest book.

Talk about friction!

But that’s the point. Writing is so much more than putting words on a page in some semblance of the right order. The LLMs can’t do anything more than that, and that’s not even taking into consideration the incredible inaccuracy of what they do.

They can’t react to the words they’ve written and figure out that they need to research more or even write another book or two before the one in progress. All that involves thinking and they can’t think.

Continue reading “The Chatbots Miss the Point of Writing”

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.