Travelling as the Green Children Do

I’m mostly typing with my left hand still. One day my right hand will heal, just as, in Disney’s universe, one day a prince will come. In the meantime, something else is on the way. Let me give you a link: https://madnessheart.press/product/the-green-children-help-out/?v=6cc98ba2045f

It’s my new novel.

Some years ago I started work on an alternate universe where the English Jewish population is significantly larger than the one we know, where there are many types of magic and much administration to keep it polite and then I thought, “I want a superhero novel set in that universe.” More than that, I wanted the superheroes to come from our universe. I set up a pocket universe to bridge the two and wondered what it would be like if a twelve year old Australian girl entered by mistake and never left. I wrote a novella to test the idea and then I went to France in 2018, to research it.

I researched many other things at the same time, for I’m still and always an historian and I had many questions I needed answers for. My burning one (not for the novel) was what happens one hundred years after land is destroyed by war. How do people find culture, rebuild, talk about the past? I’ll write about my discoveries one day.

What I wrote into my novel was modern Amiens, and a town in my little pocket universe. The town’s architecture came from what I learned about post-war building and the dances and culture I gave the good people of Tsarfat began there but included more recent French culture, both the good and the bad.

While I wrote the novel I dreamed of a bal musette in a country where people have green skin. I dreamed of what powers people could win by going through a dangerous door, and I listed all the different kinds of magic England could have based upon its history and historical beliefs.

This is the moment before my dreams reach the outside world.

Each novel has its own path in the outside world. I have a deep and vast desire with this one that readers will take my dreams and add their own, that they will walk in my France and my England and my Tsarfat. I took hundreds of pictures as my world came to life in my mind. To make it easier, I plan to share my pictures, some on Patreon in a few days, others on any website or at any online convention that wants to join my magic journey.

Why do I have this deep and vast desire? An imagined journey is the perfect way to explore in this difficult time. I love the thought of safe excitement in the strange time we live in.

Even in a Little Thing: On Turning Sixty

We were talking in the Treehouse. The things we were talking about were important, and they got me thinking about a bunch of decisions I’ve made incrementally over the last two months and why I made them.

First, let’s start with next Sunday. I turn 60. I have some physical mobility, but not a vast amount, so I had planned to go overseas and celebrate my birthday with 60 events. I wanted to see friends, attend science fiction conventions, eat new food, visit museums, take pictures of interesting places and a whole lot more. Sixty fascinating events, all of the kind that I would treasure forever. Part of it was going to Italy for Eurocon, which would have given me about thirty events, for I’ve never been to Italy and I have a long list of places I want to see and things I want to do there. I was brushing up my Italian for it, for I can read the language but can’t speak it.

Then the pandemic happened. The pandemic is still happening. No big parties. No travel. This led to my decisions.

What were they?

First, I’m still going to have sixty joyous moments. Three of them are planned for this weekend, for my actual birthday. If I’m lucky, I’ll get more.

For the other events, I’m not putting a ‘finish’ date on it. I won’t get them within three months. They may take three years.

I’m about to hunt for the prettiest notebook I possess (I collect notebooks for my fiction and use the right one for the right project, so I have some choices) and when I find it, I will take my calligraphy pens and create a pretty front page. After that, every time I have a wonderful time, I will write it up, and that notebook will be a record of my birthday.

Why am I doing this? Why am I not just saying, “I’ll have a nice weekend, and that’ll do?”

Too many big things have been made small and a bit dark by the pandemic. I’ve won awards, for instance, and been unable to go to the ceremonies and have yet to see the actual trophies. The pandemic has caused so many friends to miss so much, that I see, every day, how people are dealing with the slight tarnishing of the everyday that creates our pandemic year. We have more sorrow (I’ve lost so many people I care about) and more stress and… this is where I introduce you to one of my favourite poems. It begins, “Even in a Little Thing” and you can find it here: https://starrigging.blogspot.com/2015/11/return-to-islands-by-arthur-grimble.html

My events are a reminder to me that this is a difficult decade, but that, since I find much of my joy in small things, I can still be happy. I need the reminder. I need sixty reminders. I need them because I was losing sight of the joy of jumping in autumn leaves or of drinking hot chocolate. Sixty larger occasions representing one big life change will push my mind back to where it has found joy in darkness at other times. I will return to myself.

This is the best gift I can give myself this year.

The best gift I can give you at this moment is to include you in my celebration. If you’re reading this (whether or not you know me) and you send me an email address, I will send you one of my stories and maybe a little cookbook I made for this same purpose when life took a turn in the 1990s. If you’re in Australia, I will send the story (without the cookbook) by snail mail if you send me a street address. In with the story there may be a couple of trinkets. I’m happy to send stories (and cookbooks and trinkets!) to sixty people, so feel free to share this with someone who would smile at this little thing.

You can send me contact details through the form on my website or through DMs on Twitter or Facebook.

Women’s History Month

I’m a bit late with my post this week because I’ve been finishing up things. One of the things I was finishing up was a month’s worth of wonderful guests on my personal blog.

I was one of the group of women who set up a Women’s History Month in Australia. I moved on and others took over. Those years were special to me and most years I do a celebration all March of women’s history. I ask writers and historians to be my guests, set a theme and sometimes they stick to the theme and sometimes they don’t and every year brings much joy. This year was no exception.

This year it struck me that we were all making quite big history, even those of us confined to our homes and unable to explore the greater world. The small things in life are the history. That’s what I asked of my writer-friends – the small things in their lives. I wanted us all to have some insight into how all our lives are valuable in this pandemic time. My only regret is that I had to limit the number of writers I asked, due to my own physical restrictions. In my perfect celebration of women’s history, I would have been able to include triple the number of posts and to explore more writers’ understanding of what makes the small things in life special. Sometimes it’s research they’ve done, sometimes it’s someone’s everyday – I let writers make their own choices (as I often do) and the outcome is posts so varied and interesting that there should be something for every reader. You can find the posts here: https://gillianpolack.com/blog/

I wish we lived in less interesting times. At least, because we live now, we can understand how our apparently ordinary lives are part of something very big. In fact, they’re part of many very big things. We’re not alone and we’re not unimportant.

Treehouse Writers Out and About

Writers hanging out in the Treehouse have been sighted out and about on the Web this month.

Writers Drinking CoffeeNancy Jane Moore was just interviewed on the podcast Writers Drinking Coffee about everything from her forthcoming novel For the Good of the Realm to the poetry class she took at the 92nd Street Y in New York City (with assistance from Zoom).

Earlier this month, Madeleine Robins talked on the same podcast about Race, Romance, and Regency.

Meanwhile, since March is Women’s History Month, Gillian Polack has been hosting writers discussing that subject on her blog. Nancy Jane wrote there about being in college marching band and the relevance of Joanna Russ’s story “When It Changed” to that experience. Meanwhile, Gillian herself wrote about her experiences in debate and how they tie into current political upheaval in Australia.

And over at Strange Horizons, Judith Tarr has an essay on the importance of care in science fiction, a very topical subject these days.

Too much excitement (trigger warning – I don’t talk about things in detail, but I do mention potentially triggering events)

Every fortnight, I am tempted to begin with the words, “I had intended.”  I had intended to write about Women’s History Month and to introduce the guests on my blog and to take a quiet moment and think about the past. I wrote a post for Women’s History Month myself this year. It’s about debating circles in the 1970s and 80s. There is a sudden wild interest in the nature of those circles because of what may have happened in them in 1988. Our Attorney General (AG) is suing the national broadcaster (ABC) over a report on something that may or may not have happened in that year. Porter (the AG) was not named in that article and was one of three possible guilty parties according to what was reported. I have my opinion on what happened in 1988, but if the AG is suing the ABC… then I might have to keep it to myself for a bit.

This is one of the reasons Australia found itself at a pivotal point for the history of women this weekend. Another is that on Monday (yesterday!) tens of thousands (or more – no-one did a proper count that I could see) of women marched for justice. A rape was done in Parliament House and the guilty party got support where the victim was … victimised. She spoke at the rally.

The Australian government was in trouble before then. It was trying to recover from the shock of the West Australian state elections on Saturday. The vote was pretty decisive. The ALP won at least 50 seats (52 predicted, at this point in time, 30 needed to govern), the Liberal Party won 2 (and might get one more, and their allies, the Nationals, won 3 (possibly one more, too). Upper House results are not yet finalised, either, but there was a swing towards the ALP there, too.

The ALP is not in government nationally. It is not the party the current Attorney General belongs to. It is not beyond guilt, but it’s been accused of harassment in workplaces in Parliament House: the alleged rape was in an LNP (governing party’s) office.

While the Federal government was reeling over so many events, Australian women were angry. We made jokes about the march of the ides, or the Ides of March. Australia will make jokes about most things. We did not, however, make jokes about safe workplaces and abuse of position by people in power. In fact, when our Prime Minister made what I think now may have been intended to be a joke in Question Time when there were protesters outside, it was the icing on the cake of abuse.

I didn’t even realise it was intended as a joke at first, because one does not joke about not shooting demonstrators in Australia. One MP tweeted about water cannons, but deleted that tweet.

This week is impossibly big for Australia and this post is very difficult to write. There’s so much stuff. And most of that stuff is scary-uncomfortable. Our weekend began with the vote in the west then moved to human rights and raging anger.

Two days ago I would have given links to reports on this or that element, but now… Australia is changing. I don’t know where we will end up, but I live in hopes that this is the rebellion against the fearful and wildly conservative government that has been hurting many people.

Right now, though, I’m tired. Every single Australian who watches politics (which is most of us) is exhausted.

It’s not boring here, that’s one thing.

Re-learning the Middle Ages

This post is short, because I’m busy learning…

One of the odd side effects of the strange times in which we live is the number of conferences that have been transferred online. I’m using some of them to update old knowledge and understand subjects better. I’ve done best in this respect in learning about the Middle Ages. I’m on all the right lists, you see, because of my curious career.

My ethnohistory began as Medieval. I research modern culture right now, but I began trying to understand human beings by looking at who we were hundreds of years ago. This and the conferences open many doors to knowledge, for there is an amazing meeting of archaeology and history right now, and it’s changing what we know about the past.

Last year I attended a conference in Dublin that turned what I knew about houses in the Early Middle Ages upside down and inside out. Thatched houses without chimneys are, it turns out, neither full of smoke nor riddled with infestations. They breathe, through the thatch, and the air is clear and comfortable. From the outside, the smoke comes through the thatch, like a mist rising.

Right now, I’m attending workshops on Medieval Jewish craftspeople. One can’t avoid hearing about the effects of pogroms and mass murders (in Cologne after the Black Death, for example), but the focus is on what people did with their lives. I’m learning about bakers and goldsmiths, silk workers and bookbinders.

I’m going to do as much learning as I can, while things are online, for normally I’m the other side of the world and can only dream of these events.

Virtual Life

Today’s post is brought to you live. I’m in Canberra at my computer and at a conference in the UK, both at once. This is not my first conference this week, and won’t be my last.

The first was Boskone. I felt very privileged to be able to meet old friends, make new ones, meet authors and readers and all kinds of fascinating people. The focus was on science fiction.

Today and tomorrow is all about Jewish history. I’m not on any panels, I’m not helping run any events, and it’s not even related to my current research. My first PhD was in Medieval History and I attend events whenever I can, to keep my knowledge up to date and to keep in touch. It’s so cool. Right now I’m catching up on Jewish Medieval England in what I’m listening to now is a discussion of whether or not Jews were actually permitted to own land. It’s complicated and one of those questions that can’t be answered easily. It sounds simple and is not. However… freehold agricultural land was unlikely to be able to be owned by Jews, but earlier… it may have been possible. One of the scholars pointed out that there may not have been a lot of interest in Jews owning land in the transactions on record. Canon law in the 1190s had a gloss concerning land belonging to a church being owned by Jews. This was documented because of possible problems in swearing fealty.

This is my Middle Ages. Not something simple. Complicated and tangled and absolutely wonderful. Not, however, something that is easy to write into fiction. Fiction has to give clear claims.

This leads me neatly to my third conference in a week. I’m in this for my current research, and I’m moderating a session and delivering a paper between 4.30 am and 6 am my time. Mind you, the UK conference finishes at 6 am my time and I don’t think I’ll manage to make the final session. Australia is not close to the UK or the US.

Why is the last conference of the week so important to my research and to my fiction writing self? It’s all about popular culture. Popular culture is totally critical for novelists. We use it to bring stories to life. My paper is on foodways in modern Australian fantasy novels.

My current conference has a tea break. I need to stretch. I also need to wash dishes. Last break I hung washing up to dry. Housework fits into gaps.

I may never get to do so much in a single week in my life again. This is a side-effect of all of us being closed into small environments due to COVID. In a few months time my night will be night and my day will be day and life will return to normal. This week, however, is a lot of fun and I am treasuring every moment.

Some Days…

My brain is switched on to food references this week. I’m writing a paper on food in Australian fantasy novels. Even if I’ve read the novel before, I’m re-reading it, because I need to apply that brain-switch and analyse everything for food. It’s hard work. I’m placing references into ten different categories. The net result of this was I had no energy to cook yesterday or today.

This never happened when I was younger.

I was going to write a long screed describing food, because it’s my current (and absorbing) work, then I changed my mind and wanted to explain that chronic fatigue is impacted by emotional fatigue, which is why food research led to such a state of exhaustion. The events of the last eighteen months welled up and I missed all my lost friends and I became a mewling mess. I decided you didn’t need a long piece today, for the world is a difficult place right now.

Take this as a moral. Have early nights when life is stressed. Eat comfort food. Cry when you have to.

And I’ll be working on foodways for a bit longer, so maybe one day I’ll tell you about how writers use food to create miracles in fantasy fiction. Except when they don’t.

A Quiet Moment

So many people around me have found distractions help in dealing with the extraordinary times we’re living through. This post is my present to you. Big stuff happens in the US on 20 January. This is a breath. A break. A moment before everything changes.

For me this week is an anniversary. This time last year I had been evacuated to Melbourne because of the bushfires. The air in Canberra was dangerous for me. Tonight my windows are wide open and I’m up late, cooling everything down as much as I can, for we have an incoming heatwave. Earlier today, however, everything was shut, for the dust storms in NSW sent a bit of frazzled air our way. That reminded me that I’ve been mostly indoors since June 2019. Bushfires followed by pandemic. Every now and again I get out and do things and this reminds me that the world outside is real. These incidents come from that real world. I think this is also the moment to celebrate that.

The first story is from Sydney in 1956, for tonight someone reminded me about the torch carrying for the 1956 Olympics.

A group of university students didn’t like the link between the torch and Hitler. Also, they were Australian. Of course they were Australian.

They painted a chair leg silver and put a tin on the end. They filled the tin with a pair of men’s underpants and set it on fire. Two students carried that torch. One of them successfully handed it to the Lord Mayor of Sydney at the Town Hall. The Lord Mayor didn’t realise at first that this was a hoax, and the torchbearer had time to slip away into the crowd.

The second story is from Canberra, quite recently.

A writer-friend was telling us on Twitter tonight about a time… let me give you the story in her words:

“Was at a con sitting at the signing table under a poster with “K.J. TAYLOR” on it and behind a nameplate which also said “K.J. TAYLOR”. A guy came up to me and said “Is K.J. Taylor here?” I patted myself down and said “I’m pretty sure I’m here!” He looked so confused.”

My third tidbit is a bit older, and is from the US. I collect interesting stories about food history. How fast molasses can burst out of a factory on a cold day, for example, and where to buy meat pies in London in 1250. I didn’t know that, on 16 May 1902, there was a kosher beef war on the Lower East Side in New York. Some describe it as riots. Kosher beef riots. This one deserves a link.

I live in a city where there are 300 people who admit to being Jewish. I can’t see us rioting. We used to hold food fairs, where our numbers were drowned by the crowds who wanted to eat bagels and felafel and lokshen kugel and particularly tasty curry from Jewish India.

I used to cook Medieval Jewish dishes for my stall, and people would ask, “Were there really Jews in the Middle Ages?” I gave those asking morsels of history along with their plates of food. Other days I’d talk about the persecution and the murders, but not at the food fair. We all need times where we don’t bear the burdens of history. Take that time today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Where Gillian meanders, intellectually

I’m in the middle of summer and, no matter how much work I do, some escapes me. This is not such a bad thing as long as I don’t miss my deadlines. Summer is a time for meandering, however, so I’m guilty of detours.

Deadlines can be horrid things, but this week they all include cool stuff. One set of deadlines includes its own intrinsic meander. The book I need to finish re-reading today, for example, is Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre. It’s an early (1984) foray into French cultural history. Darnton is one of my favourite cultural historians and French history is very much part of my historical background. He talks about sermon literature as sources and how there was a wildly huge collection of French peasant fairy tales for about 50 years in the 18th to 19th centuries.

I’m reading Darnton’s study because I need to be more grounded in the way I interpret fairy tales and also because my life needs more safe places. The re-reading began, however, as a reminder to myself that even the best scholars are capable of filling into stuff they can’t find out about with explanations that are fun but not reliable.

Right now I’m making a mental list of sources Darnton refers to and one of those he doesn’t even think of adding in. He includes collected stories by peasants and traces the relationship between French literary fairy tales and those later popular ones. He doesn’t talk enough about chapbooks and broadsides and forbidden books as sources for popular literature here, however (he does elsewhere). He also leaves the Maase Book and the whole realm of Jewish women’s literature and other equivalent narratives by Jews out of his overview.

It’s as if a society only contains one religion. I need to remember that I only really understand Jewish and Christian Europe and that I myself have to explore beyond my boundaries. Other scholars skip Jewish culture, but they also skip gendered culture. Jack Zipes is my go-to author for gender in fairy tales, however, not Darnton.

I am a person who looks at their own intellectual path and questions it. That’s why I need to finish the Darnton book. Darnton and Greg Dening and Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie and Claude Levi-Strauss started me on this journey, decades ago. Right now I’m discovering that every single scholar who questions stuff still accepts a truckload of cultural values and assumptions.

We all privilege culture. Even those of us who are working hard to break down that privilege and to understand what comes from where and why. I need to understand how I’ve been influenced.

This is not for my fiction. Or maybe not only for my fiction. It’s my research side. It’s going to affect my fiction. I can already see changes in how I think about my own writing.

I was thinking, the other day, that I need to write a novel that looks at how a person create safe spaces for themselves and uses those safe spaces to get through impossible times.

What I’m doing right now is saying, “We all create safe spaces. Even intellectually, we are more contented in safe spaces.” I can’t write this novel until I understand how my favourite scholars create the safe spaces for their ground-breaking work. Why is it safe to talk about this subject or that? Why can one talk about the Middle Ages in popular culture and skip straight to the 18th century?

All this sounds theoretical. When I write something on the academic side, it is. It has some extraordinary practical applications, however. I’m applying the theory to fairy stories and folk tales right now, for that’s what my research is in, but last time I did this same type of questioning, I applied it to my cooking. I worked out that I only use a small part of my kitchen for actual cooking. The rest of it helps reassure me I can cook, or it gives me the stories of my past cooking. Anything that doesn’t fit my kitchen is hidden or not there at all. You could understand a lot about my cultural background and my financial position and even my friendships by exploring my pantry and refrigerator and freezer. Sweet foods are rare, pork and its equivalents are non-existent. Since the bushfires were followed by the pandemic, I’m set up so that if I can’t shop for a month I will still eat healthily. All of this and more is there for anyone who cares to look.

In short, the way my kitchen is set up makes it comfortable for me to cook, now, when life is a bit difficult. The way any book is set up tells me what the writer finds comfortable and helps me understand what the limits of their research are. Understanding those limits means I can push my own scholarship in ways I never will do with my cooking. It also means I understand the choices I myself make.

My New Year’s resolution is to create more safe spaces for myself, so that I can grow despite the dangers the external world shoves in my face. This style of reading is step one in that resolution. I’m not the kind of person who walks out boldly. I’m the kind of person who lays a path and walks it with others. I begin with reading books by experts and dissecting those books.

This particular path is a very fine one to walk. If anyone wants to walk it with me, you’re welcome.