The Somewhat Updated Guide to Prevent Perplexity: How to avoid Gillian at Chicon8

Normal life is slowly (maybe) returning, for quite different grades of normal to those any of us expected. I may never be able to attend a big crowded event again. Fortunately, this means that it’s very easy to avoid me at events. You can go where I cannot. You can get a cuppa while attending virtually. You can train your computer system to obliterate me while listening and enjoying all other panellists, speakers. I admit, I have not worked out how to do this latter, but there must be an app for it, somewhere.

Worldcon is coming. In Chicago, where I cannot go, due to COVID. Also on our computers, where I am definitely going and where I am on the program and… you need to know how to avoid me.

I would like to return to warning people of my incipient presence somewhere. How can you know how to avoid me if you don’t know where I am?

This is all of my program a week prior to the convention. I’ve left out times and days because you’ll need to find the location for each event and the program guide itself will contain all this critical information. I think avoiding me will be fun this time round, a computer-assisted minuet.

The Middle Ages Weren’t Actually Bad
I agree with the title, but not with the reason for it. Of course you should avoid me. I will make waves. Grumpy waves. I’m a middle-aged Medievalist, so any waves I make are grumpy and my time to make that joke is almost over, which makes me grumpier. In the context, I might even make my toilet joke. I want to say “my notorious toilet joke” but that would be giving it too much credit. Find a gizmo that hides my face and reduces my voice to nothing, and enjoy the panel. The other panellists are definitely worth hearing.
Virtual Jewish Fan Gathering
I’m co-hosting a fan gathering. I don’t know if I’m the non-American Jew in this, or the Orthodox, or…
I’m Modern Australian Orthodox, for those who wonder why I don’t act like a Chassid. I am not Chassidic, my childhood was religious, but also full of science.
If you want to come to this gathering and make me invisible without even letting me know who you are, find someone who has read The Green Children Help Out or The Wizardry of Jewish Women or The Time of the Ghosts (the novels with the highest Jewish content). Ask them to chat with me (chat function FTW!) about my writing. I will immerse myself in the world of Jewish superheroes or the world of Jewish fairies and everyone else will have a fine time.
Virtual Table Talk – Gillian Polack
This is a simple “Avoid Gillian” one. Don’t come. I can talk to myself about fairy tale retellings, the Middle Ages (France and England especially), enthohistory, my fiction, Jewishness in fiction, my research, cultural brickwork, my fiction-to-appear-in-print-soon, my world developing, Australia, new kitchens and more.
Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays
My suggestion for this panel is that you reclaim it through Alternate Gillians. It’s too good to miss, otherwise. How does one create an Alternate Gillian? Whenever I say something, you, twist what I say until it makes you laugh aloud. For instance, if I say, “My background for this panel lies in historiography adulterated with ethnohistory” you replace the ‘historiography’; with ‘haemophilia’ and in your mind make that part of an explanation for our world where vampires died out through developing haemophilia more acutely than any human can.
Your reward is the other panellists, and I become your fiction for the day.
Australian Speculative Fiction
Two perfectly excellent Australian writers (both award-winning, I believe)… and me. The approach I suggested for Reclaiming History would also work for this. Replace ‘Australian’ with ‘Aslanian’ and turn my comments into analysis of Narnia. If I talk about lost civilisations (I am prone to this) then invent your own. If I talk about German academics and their interest in Australian SFF, then take yourself to a university website and read the blog about Australian SFF whenever I speak.
Virtual Reading – Gillian Polack
This is another skip-by-not-attending one. I’m tossing up between reading from my Other Covenants story and my next novel. If you skip it, you don’t have to find out if my coin landed on heads, tails, or spun so strangely I had to read a bit from each.
Fairy Tales and Folklore in Urban Fantasy
You don’t want to miss this panel. One reason (just one, of the several) is Frances Hardinge. She’s one of the best fairytale/folklore using writers around, worldwide. I should know – this is one of my academic interests. And the other two panelists are also worth many detours to hear. Many. You’ll have to be creative then, in avoiding me. Stick a picture of a malevolent fairy over my bit of your computer screen. Hear my voice as the garbled sound heard through a mound, with no fairy door to provide clarity. You’ll be fine.
The Culinary Delights of Speculative Fiction
Use your avoidance of me in this panel to create the perfect dinner party. Invite all the best people (the remainder of the panel, for instance, because they’re worth meeting as well as listening to) and use all the foodstuffs I can’t eat. Fish and pork, seafood and nuts. If you feel vindictive, let me know the menu and invite me to enjoy it. That’ll help you get even with me for being on this otherwise-wonderful panel and making you miss some of it.
Or you could ask me to describe the making of portable soup and use those minutes to take a refreshing nap.

          The Metaverse and SF
The academic panel is two papers and a discussion. It’s worth coming for the section on the Metaverse (Ben Root “The Metaverse, from Science-Fiction to Reality.” )
My paper is on “Dangerous borders: the importance of edges and edginess in Ó Guilín’s The Call and The Invasion.” Skipping stuff about Peadar (even by me) is a sadness and should not be done. Pretend I’m someone else for twenty minutes, perhaps?

How to avoid Gillian at Chicon – a guide to prevent perplexity

Normal life is slowly (maybe) returning, for quite different grades of normal to those any of us expected. I may never be able to attend a big crowded event again. Fortunately, this means that it’s very easy to avoid me at events. You can go where I cannot. You can get a cuppa while attending virtually. You can train your computer system to obliterate me while listening and enjoying all other panellists, speakers. I admit, I have not worked out how to do this latter, but there must be an app for it, somewhere.

Worldcon is coming. In Chicago, where I cannot go, due to COVID. Also on our computers, where I am definitely going and where I am on the program and… you need to know how to avoid me.

I’ll do a new post when the final, final program is announced (this week sometime, I believe) but you need an interim post, because this coming week is not full of time for posts. I would like to return to warning people of my incipient presence somewhere. How can you know how to avoid me if you don’t know where I am?

This is most of my program. I think avoiding me will be fun this time round, a computer-assisted minuet.

The Middle Ages Weren’t Actually Bad
I agree with the title, but not with the reason for it. Of course you should avoid me. I will make waves. Grumpy waves. I’m a middle-aged Medievalist, so any waves I make are grumpy and my time to make that joke is almost over, which makes me grumpier. In the context, I might even make my toilet joke. I want to say “my notorious toilet joke” but that would be giving it too much credit. Find a gizmo that hides my face and reduces my voice to nothing, and enjoy the panel. The other panellists are definitely worth hearing.
Virtual Jewish Fan Gathering
I’m co-hosting a fan gathering. I don’t know if I’m the non-American Jew in this, or the Orthodox, or…
I’m Modern Australian Orthodox, for those who wonder why I don’t act like a Chassid. I am not Chassidic, my childhood was religious, but also full of science.
If you want to come to this gathering and make me invisible without even letting me know who you are, find someone who has read The Green Children Help Out or The Wizardry of Jewish Women or The Time of the Ghosts (the novels with the highest Jewish content). Ask them to chat with me (chat function FTW!) about my writing. I will immerse myself in the world of Jewish superheroes or the world of Jewish fairies and everyone else will have a fine time.
Virtual Table Talk – Gillian Polack
This is a simple “Avoid Gillian” one. Don’t come. I can talk to myself about fairy tale retellings, the Middle Ages (France and England especially), enthohistory, my fiction, Jewishness in fiction, my research, cultural brickwork, my fiction-to-appear-in-print-soon, my world developing, Australia, new kitchens and more.
Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays
My suggestion for this panel is that you reclaim it through Alternate Gillians. It’s too good to miss, otherwise. How does one create an Alternate Gillian? Whenever I say something, you, twist what I say until it makes you laugh aloud. For instance, if I say, “My background for this panel lies in historiography adulterated with ethnohistory” you replace the ‘historiography’; with ‘haemophilia’ and in your mind make that part of an explanation for our world where vampires died out through developing haemophilia more acutely than any human can.
Your reward is the other panellists, and I become your fiction for the day.
Australian Speculative Fiction
Two perfectly excellent Australian writers (both award-winning, I believe)… and me. The approach I suggested for Reclaiming History would also work for this. Replace ‘Australian’ with ‘Aslanian’ and turn my comments into analysis of Narnia. If I talk about lost civilisations (I am prone to this) then invent your own. If I talk about German academics and their interest in Australian SFF, then take yourself to a university website and read the blog about Australian SFF whenever I speak.
Virtual Reading – Gillian Polack
This is another skip-by-not-attending one. I’m tossing up between reading from my Other Covenants story and my next novel. If you skip it, you don’t have to find out if my coin landed on heads, tails, or spun so strangely I had to read a bit from each.
Fairy Tales and Folklore in Urban Fantasy
You don’t want to miss this panel. One reason (just one, of the several) is Frances Hardinge. She’s one of the best fairytale/folklore using writers around, worldwide. I should know – this is one of my academic interests. And the other two panelists are also worth many detours to hear. Many. You’ll have to be creative then, in avoiding me. Stick a picture of a malevolent fairy over my bit of your computer screen. Hear my voice as the garbled sound heard through a mound, with no fairy door to provide clarity. You’ll be fine.
The Culinary Delights of Speculative Fiction
Use your avoidance of me in this panel to create the perfect dinner party. Invite all the best people (the remainder of the panel, for instance, because they’re worth meeting as well as listening to) and use all the foodstuffs I can’t eat. Fish and pork, seafood and nuts. If you feel vindictive, let me know the menu and invite me to enjoy it. That’ll help you get even with me for being on this otherwise-wonderful panel and making you miss some of it.
Or you could ask me to describe the making of portable soup and use those minutes to take a refreshing nap.

Reasons to write #ownvoice, a bit of personal history

I’ve been thinking about the Jewishness in my fiction. Bettina Burger and I are working on getting a handle on Australian and NZ Jewish speculative fiction, so, this week, the books being discussed are my own.

Firstly, I need to admit (alas) that I don’t think I’m related to Joel Samuel Polack, who wrote in the nineteenth century. Right surname, right religion, right region of the world, wrong family. I’m descended from the Abraham Polack who came to Melbourne in 1858, not the rather more famous one who came to Melbourne in 1824. I think Joel Samuel is from the earlier family. There are other writers in my family, but I’m the only one with this surname.

A subject that comes up a lot in my vicinity is why there aren’t more Australian SFF writers who publicly identify as Jewish. There are so many possible reasons, but I don’t want to give simplified explanations, especially about identity. One thing I do know is that, when I speak before a large audience, I often have Australians (so far no New Zealanders) coming up to me afterwards and admitting they are Jewish and asking, “But don’t tell anyone.” Some give the reason as personal safety, while others give no reason at all. Others identify with Judaism because of Jewish parents and grandparents but are not halachically Jewish and do not wish to claim Jewishness. In other words, it’s a very personal decision. Given the number of Shoah survivor families who are in Australia and given the small number of Jews outside Melbourne and Sydney (and that I am in Canberra) the decision not to be public about one’s identity is an important one.

I have been publicly Jewish my whole life. It’s caused me many problems and lost me many opportunities, but various family members let me know how important it was to them and family culture is important to me. One Moment in my life was when my great-uncle explained to me that if no-one did this, then things would be worse for those who had no option. I was (and possibly still am) very dutiful and was on so many committees and did so much stuff in response to the need for public understanding of Jewishness in order to prevent another mass murder. I was on committees and even gave advice to government Ministers at one point, which is why a chapter of Story Matrices has a letter from a minister saying it was fine to use the material.

Eventually I realised that I was not my great-uncle or my grandmother and that Gillianishly was a proper way of living a life. I finally wrote my Australian Jewish novel. I thought the whole world would change in 2016 because there was finally an Australian Jewish fantasy novel. When The Wizardry of Jewish Women was released, I kept a very close eye on its trajectory within the Jewish community, partly because I have a history of activity in the Jewish community (that family thing!). Not many people noticed. It was world-changing for me, however, and was shortlisted for a Ditmar, and ever since then I’ve worked through my fiction.

Ironically, I’m writing this post on the weekend when Ditmar award nominations are open (see addendum, if you’re curious) and I have another Jewish-themed novel that is eligible (The Green Children Help Out). Given COVID, it’s been more visible elsewhere than Australia, so I’m appreciating the irony of writing about my Jewishness in my fiction at this precise moment.

Sorry about the diversion. Back to Wizardry. I wanted a Jewish Australian #ownvoices novel. There are so many options for Jewish Australian #ownvoices, so I chose one very precise family and had a lot of fun exploring them. I was also reacting to the invisibility of Jewish Australian culture and the misuse of the Jewish fantastic. I still have issues about all these things, and one of these issues is going to be addressed in a story I wrote for Other Covenants, where I brought out my Medieval self to address the significant differences between Christianity and Judaism and that Christian interpretations of stories are not going to be the same as Jewish. But that’s in my future. Today I’m talking about the past.

Most Jewish-Australian speculative fiction writers are, for the most part, first or second generation Australian. They bring with them backgrounds from Europe, Israel, South Africa and the USA. My family arrived in Australia between 1858 and 1918. While much of it is European, one branch is from London.

Given the strength and cultural impositions from the White Australia policy and Federation, that London origin has impacted the family culture. Yiddish and Ladino had not been family languages for over a century until Yiddish was reintroduced into the generation after mine and until I learned to read a bit of (transliterated) Ladino.

Anglo-Australian Judaism is closest to UK Modern Orthodox Judaism in culture and much of the acquisition of Yiddish folkways and even Yiddish words in English came to the family through US popular culture. I have a US Catholic friend who knows far more Yiddish than I do, because she is from New York and Yiddishisms are part of her everyday English. While the family Chanukah tradition included a sung version of Ma’otsur, the Dreidel song was not acquired until the 1990s. I still don’t think of the Dreidel song as very Chanukah-ish. I didn’t react to not being from a well-known type of Jewish culture. I built my world from the inside: I intentionally use my Anglo-Australian Jewishness in my fiction, whether directly in The Wizardry of Jewish Women, or indirectly, for example as satire in Poison and Light. (The Chelm-equivalent jokes in Poison and Light came from my mother’s neighbour, who was from Chelm and who taught me Chelm jokes ie none of these statements are universal – culture is delightfully complicated.)

Older Australian Jewish culture holds very strong family cultures of university education. For my work specifically, this means that the Jewish history I learned through stories and through books in our (very bookish) home was placed in the wider context of Western European histories from my teens. I owe being an historian to being Jewish, I suspect.

While occasional members of my family were Shoah survivors and whole branches of the family were lost to the Holocaust, the young men in my corner of the family were in the Australian and British military (army and air force) during the war, and the most significant loss for those close to me was my mother’s youngest uncle, who was a bomber pilot. When addressing issues of war and loss, my approach is still Jewish (and still replays many issues relating to the Shoah) but deals with these matters from a different angle to the work of most other writers. Where Jane Yolen wrote Briar Rose, for example, I split my sense of what was lost into several parts and addressed some of them in The Time of the Ghosts, some in Poison and Light and others in The Green Children Help Out.

There were emotional and experiential gaps between Australian Holocaust narratives and my family’s experience. These gaps are very Australian in nature. Many survivors came to Australia because it was as far from Europe as it was possible to go. My family had been here for a generation or more when they made that difficult journey. The difference between their experience and my family’s understanding led to a different set of narrative paths. This is not true of all Australian Jews. Mark Baker, for example, writes Shoah narratives based on his own family background. He does not, however, write speculative fiction.

I did a little research about Australian Jewish fiction (in general, and also in YA, and also in historical fiction and in speculative fiction) a few years ago and I was greatly perturbed to discover that novels about the Shoah or Ultra-Orthodox life were acceptable, but that secular Australian Judaism was almost impossible to find in fiction. The only aspect of Jewish folklore or magic that was written about consistently was the golem. This is the main reason I wrote The Wizardry of Jewish Women (2016) and a sequel short story (that was published long before the novel) “Impractical Magic.”

Poison and Light (2020) and Langue[dot]doc 1305 (2014) are examples of my ongoing tendency to include appropriate elements of Jewish history and culture in types of novels where they’re normally entirely neglected. In Poison and Light, Jewish characters (all minor players in the story) have a different response to everyone else when the eighteenth century is re-invented on New Ceres, while Langue[dot]doc 1305 has a minor character whose experience of Judaism is of a kind, again, that’s seldom covered in fiction. The Time of the Ghosts (2015) has a major character who is Jewish and whose personal writing about historical events and her own life again, do not follow the standard stories Australians use when writing Jewish character and culture. The Green Children Help Out (2021), stories in Mountains of the Mind, (2019) and “Why The BridgeBuilders of York Pay No Taxes” (that Other Covenants story) are all set in an alternate universe where England has a significantly higher number of Jews. Once I learned how to start creating fiction with Jewish components, I was unable to stop.

And now you know…

Addendum:

For those of you who want to know about the Ditmars (Australian SFF awards – the Hugo equivalent, really), this is the information that came by email today via Cat Sparks. These are not my words – they’re the official information.

Nominations for the 2022 Australian SF (‘Ditmar’) awards are now open and will remain open until one minute before midnight Canberra time on Sunday, 7th of August, 2022 (ie. 11.59pm, GMT+10).

The current rules, including Award categories can be found at:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/Ditmar_rules

You must include your name with any nomination. Nominations will be accepted only from natural persons active in fandom, or from full or supporting members of Conflux 16, the 2022 Australian National SF Convention (https://conflux.org.au/).

Where a nominator may not be known to the Ditmar subcommittee, the nominator should provide the name of someone known to the subcommittee who can vouch for the nominator’s eligibility. Convention attendance or membership of an SF club are among the criteria which qualify a person as ‘active in fandom’, but are not the only qualifying criteria. If in doubt, nominate and mention your qualifying criteria.

You may nominate as many times in as many Award categories as you like, although you may only nominate a particular person, work or achievement once. The Ditmar subcommittee, which is organised under the auspices of the Standing Committee of the Natcon Business Meeting, will rule on situations where eligibility is unclear. A partial and unofficial eligibility list, to which everyone is encouraged to add, can be found here:

https://wiki.sf.org.au/2022_Ditmar_eligibility_list

Online nominations are preferred

https://ditmars.sf.org.au/2022/nominations.html

Still Dreaming of the Middle Ages

I spent much of last week in the Middle Ages, as you know. I emerged about lunch time yesterday. The thing about an academic conference is that it doesn’t present a picture of the whole subject. It’s a bit here and a bit there from what the scholars are currently researching. The subject specialisation is wonderful (such interesting research!), but fitting it all together can be problematic.

This week I’m back into my own contemporary research. The first thought I had when I picked up a book about contemporary Irish folklore was that I have contexts for it. In fact, I went to Ireland before the world went awry and I worked very hard to develop those contexts. Do I have contexts for the Middle Ages?

The answer is, of course I do. I spent many years of my life developing them. I started when I was eighteen and learned Old French in second year university and have never quite stopped. I learned new things then found out that I didn’t understand where those new things came from nor what their companions were, culturally and historically speaking. One of my big dreams has always been to understand. This includes understanding what I know and how I know it, and continuing to learn and to frame my knowledge so that I can learn more about subjects that I think I might be beginning to understand. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do this full-on for the Middle Ages. By ‘a while’ I mean since The Middle Ages Unlocked was released. Since then, I keep it all together by going to conferences and reading books and teaching and talking and by using it in my fiction. To maintain the complex reality of a subject this rich is wonderful place to be, intellectually. I’ll never know everything or understand everything, but it’s so fulfilling to continue learning.

In my library I have a selection of books that I recommend to people as doorways into the Middle Ages I know. The period is so much more interesting than the popular Middle Ages, so it would be very churlish of me to keep it to myself. Also, there are a lot of trashy books out there. I like to introduce people to good books.

I walked past my shelf. The question I asked as I let my brain wander was what subject didn’t I encounter last week that I want to introduce people to? Medicine. Medicine is so important. The way the wider public talks about medicine in the Middle Ages mostly bears little relationship to actual medicine in the Middle Ages. This popular view creeps into some of the best fantasy novels.

I thought about medicine last week. Monica Green was in the audience at a panel I was also in the audience for. I didn’t talk to her. I was shy. Her work is utterly amazing. It’s also seldom a 101 guide for the topic.

There are two books I send people to, first, and, when they say “I need more” I nod sagely and tell them to look for the work of Monica Green. Here’s the book by Green that I need to add to my library sometime, just so that you have a Green title to look for . There are also two lovely volumes by Tony Hunt on Anglo-Norman medicine check here and here , but they’re for after you’ve read a lot of Green and feel up to looking at an edition of medical texts (it also really helps to read Old French). And that’s just the beginning. Medieval European medicine is a big subject, and the European Middle Ages is just a small part of what was happening in the wider world at that time. That’s why I try to find one or two books to suggest to get people started. If you begin with the whole world, then the subject is too big. Since I am, by training and knowledge a European Medievalist, the countries I know best (France and England) tend to dominate my recommendations.

The two books that I suggest starting with (especially to historical fiction and fantasy writers) are Nancy Siraisi’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine  and Carole Rawcliffe’s Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England.  Because I haven’t looked at new introductions to medieval medicine for a few years, there might be something else that has emerged that I know not yet of. Medieval Studies is a vast field and there is often something new and exciting and intellectually vibrant to look for.

Now my mind has wandered to Montpellier. A year or two after I had sorted out the underlying patterns and structures and just how things happened in the various worlds of Medieval medicine, I was in Montpeller. Montpellier was my research base for my novel Langue[dot]doc 1305. I had to go to hospital, just for two hours, my first day there. It amused me no end that the hospital I went to was one I knew about from my forays into the Middle Ages. It was a university hospital and the only one that didn’t limit its teaching of medicine to Christians in the very Christian part of the Middle Ages. One day I’d like to go to Salerno, and visit the campus there, the one that was famous for teaching women how to be doctors in the Middle Ages.

And now it’s so close to my Tuesday morning that I think I might sleep. If any of you are interested in me turning this into a series “Books you can read about the Middle Ages” (to appear on this blog on Mondays, when I feel like it) then please let me know, because it would be fun to write.

My favourite Medieval werewolf, or, Marie ai num si sui de France

I’m a few hours late today and I’m writing this with the sound of the Roman de Fauvel (a Medieval musical satire) in the background. I’m at the 2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies. If I’m going to be one of the ways writers learn about the Middle Ages, I need to maintain my knowledge and the congress is online this year. The last time I was able to go was in 1984.

Because I’m firmly fixed in the Middle Ages at this moment and because I delivered my paper at 5.15 am my time, I thought… maybe this week you’d like the text I used as a case study in my paper? It’s short and it’s cool and there are translations readily available on the internet. In fact, let me give you several of the links I referred to in my paper. I’m sorry about the formatting, but I’m sneaking this post into time I don’t really have. I’ll introduce the work itself in a moment:

Judith Shoaf, Introduction to the lais https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/marie_lais/

Judith Shoaf, translation Bisclavret https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/files/bisclavret.pdf

Eugene Mason translation Bisclavret 1911 translation at Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11417/11417-h/11417-h.htm#VIII

ARLIMA on Marie de France (including Bisclavret) https://www.arlima.net/mp/marie_de_france.html

Marie de France wrote in Old French, and is famous for her lais. She is, in fact, one of the most important writers in Old French, and if you love fantasy fiction and stories about the knights of Arthur, she’s more than worth visiting. The lais are long poems that tell stories. It’s that simple. Except that when I say ‘long’ I’m comparing the lais to modern short poetry. They’re not long compared to some other forms of Medieval poetry. It’s like the difference between a novella (the novella representing Marie’s work) and a big fantasy blockbuster series where each novel is long and readers seldom stop after just one novel (the chansons de geste – the French term for them is generally translated as ‘epic legend’ but… they’re not quite that.)

Bisclavret is the story of a knight-werewolf, who is tricked by his wife into remaining in wolf shape. It took the help of a good lord for him to return to his human body. (The Roman de Fauvel is satirical and so I’m full of bad puns.) I don’t want to explain the plot any more than that, because Marie’s story is so worth reading. Just remember that Medieval customs were not the same as ours. One person said happily on Goodreads, for instance “GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF GAY WEREWOLF’ but the Medieval church would have caused much trouble for the two men if that were so. I do like this as a modern interpretation, however.

There was a Late Medieval Jewish reinterpretation of Bisclavret and it’s the strangest misogynist story. Since I write about books every Monday, if you’re interested I can introduce you to it and to some of the other stories in the volume in which it appears.

Today is short and sweet, because I have a meeting in a few minutes. I can’t think of a better way of spending the next few minutes than introducing yourself to Bisclavret.

Children’s books can play mind games

I’m writing late today, because it’s my birthday. In fact, I’m writing so late that my birthday is already finished in Australia. My birthday is on a public holiday. In a normal year, I’d probably introduce you to a book that tells the history of that public holiday, but the history of that public holiday is very military and there is enough of that in our everyday right now. If you’re curious, the day is ANZAC Day and the history is the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

‘ANZAC’ stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, so I’ll give you one of my favourite Australian novels written by a New Zealand writer, as a compromise. Ruth Park moved to Sydney in 1942, where she married another writer of classic Australian books, D’Arcy Niland. I’ll introduce his The Shiralee one day.

I have several favourite books by Park: The Harp in the South, Poor Man’s Orange, and, of course all the stories of the Muddle-Headed Wombat. I suspect The Muddle-Headed Wombat was one of the first books I read outside school textbooks, in fact. I obtained my own copy of it in my teens and have never let anyone borrow it. My copy of The Muddle-Headed Wombat is pristine, however, compared to my copy of Playing Beatie Bow. I have maybe half a dozen books read so often that they cannot hold together, and this is one of them.

It’s set in Sydney, and is a time slip novel and… it’s almost impossible for me to describe. It’s been filmed and the film is charming but slight and the book is far more haunting and simply one of the best time slip novels out there.

Some books I read and re-read because they remind me of things I ought never forget. Playing Beatie Bow came out when I was an undergraduate, studying history. It became an instant reminder to me that history can happen as a narrative, as a spiral, as layers in time and more: history is not a simple thing.

I had only been to Sydney very briefly when I first read the novel. It suggested a society that was very different to the one I knew. More poor and urban and complex than the suburban I knew. Park’s two Sydneys brought the place to life in a way that made me rethink my own Melbourne. I wasn’t specialising in Australian history, but I attended every public lecture about Marvellous Melbourne by John Lack and I started to shape the stories of the streets I knew and I began to see the relationship between the stories we tell, the stories we lead.

When I myself moved to Sydney, in 1983, I walked down George Street and ventured down to The Rocks and found that the district was nothing like the novel. I had to learn another kind of history, or maybe another layer. Since then, The Rocks has been rebuilt and a museum established and it’s easier to see how the different moments of the past link, but then, I studied a street corner and tried to work out how it fitted and failed. I stopped trying and instead learned about the influenza pandemic and how it changed that tiny corner of Australia.

I suspect that this is the other reason I’m thinking of Playing Beatie Bow. The Rocks are indelibly linked in my mind with that pandemic, and, of course, now we are living through our own pandemic.

I can’t review Playing Beatie Bow. I can’t even analyse its history. This is unlike me. There is another timeslip novel whose history I analyse perfectly well, and that has an even more battered cover, Allison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. I suspect that Park’s novel is too linked to that big change in my life, becoming an historian and, in order to do so, moving from Melbourne to Sydney. I may never be able to pull it to pieces in the same I way I pull most novels to pieces. All I can suggest, then, is that you read it for yourself.

Story Matrices – the story behind Gillian Polack’s research

Today I’m wildly busy, but also celebrating. The research I’ve talked about at science fiction conventions for years is finally in print. Thanks to Luna Press, a Scottish SF publisher with an academic branch. The book is Story matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The reason I’m so tired and so very delighted is because this book was almost lost to the world because Canberra had bushfires and the bushfires made me ill. I had a week of doing normal everyday things before COVD hit Canberra and since then I’ve not been able to go to libraries, to attend face to face meetings and so much more. I’m not entirely a well person and so I’m one of those who have spent most of COVID seeing people only online. Occasionally I get out and pretend life is normal, but I’m always wearing a mask and it’s always risky.

Despite all this, my little study of how science fiction and fantasy is important in cultural transfer and explanation is officially available. It’s not the mega-study that I had intended, but, as someone earnestly said to me a couple of months ago “it’s much easier to read than it would have been if you’d written it the way you told me you would.”

There are so many things I want to tell you about this book.

I want to talk about how hard it is to write any book through brainfog and with lungs that don’t fully work. I want to explain that air should be breathable, not riddled with particles.

I also want to talk about how difficult it was to avoid the usual explanations of writers we no longer trust. Aided by the brainfog, my first draft kept falling into bad explanations of the changing relationships between Marion Zimmer Bradley, JK Rowling and their readers. I then looked at what I wrote and realised that I was doing exactly what my book explains: I was telling stories about them that explained who they were and their life choices. But my book isn’t about their life choices nor how we react to them. That I dislike a whole bunch of things about MZB’s private life and get angry about JK Rowling’s opinions about my friends is, to be honest, not useful. These are my emotions and my ethics and my personal opinions.

I need to get past the ethical questions and the personal. My research explains that how we tell stories is damned important. I needed to understand how we include our ethics and our thoughts about others into our work, often without knowing we’re doing this. I needed to write it out clearly. That was surprisingly difficult. Now that the book is out and people can read it, I’ll find out if I’ve succeeded.

It’s urgent that we understand why harmful stereotypes keep being updated and complex understanding of human beings is only appropriate for certain kinds of novels. This is why, instead of describing my own personal reactions of this author or the other, I needed to explain how novels give us tools that support one interpretation or another. I had to explore what some of those tools are and explain how they work.

My original plan was for a comprehensive explanation that changed the world. Life reduced this to an introduction, with lots of different entry points for readers and writers, so that they can explore for themselves the bits of the world they want to change. I looked at unique culture and shared culture, at what story space is for a reader and what it is for a writer, at how we build worlds for fiction and to play in. Understanding how Rowling and MZB’s work fits into this, helps us understand how their life choices creep into their fiction and gives us the capacity to understand which parts of that fiction are good and which are worrying. It takes us past stereotyping and into how that stereotyping plays out in novels.

This book is the next step after my History and Fiction work. It’s the precursor of a deeper exploration. Right now, I’m looking at how fairy tale retellings and fantasy world building operate in certain novels. Now that Story Matrices is out, I need to deepen my understanding of how we do what we do and what that means for our writing. I especially need to understand how the nicest people can use racist and bigoted cultural elements in their work, and how the most terrible people can write immensely popular and well-written novels. I need to do this non-judgmentally, because I am also capable, as a writer, of doing all these things. Instead of saying “What a terrible thing this writer has done”, I want to look at works and say “These are the techniques the writer has used.” Readers can make their own decisions about ethics and are perfectly capable of judging for themselves, but it really helps to have useful tools.

How culture is encoded into fiction and the cultural baggage fiction carries is not a simple matter. It’s a mosaic sparkling with colour and with outlines that move and perspectives that change. It’s easier to give simple descriptions and to announce, “I understand this.” It’s so simple to hate a book without understanding what the writer has actually done, what we’re reacting to with such force. There is a price for choosing the easy route. Our everyday lives become riddled with material we read in our fiction or watch on TV or in movies, or in comics or… in any narrative.

With the best intentions in the world, we can spread prejudice and support hate. That’s the extreme case, the one that’s right now playing out in a war in Eastern Europe, in the collapse of politics in Pakistan, in the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar and in may other places. I can see those stories in the convoy folk who descended on Canberra in February and have been giving us a hard time ever since.

So much of the things we do in our lives is influenced by the stories we love. Story Matrices is one step on my journey to understanding this. In a perfect world, it will help readers and writers see what we put into novels and what we take out of them. It will give us back choices about the aspects of culture we want to accept.

Prophets and their Gifts

Right now, a lot of my research is about food. Not recipes, nor food history, but how food and foodways creep into fiction. It’ll be a long time before I have research results that I’m willing to share. Right now, I change my mind from day to day as I discover new things. Still, it’s not at all fair to leave you out of my foodways entirely, so I’m going to share with you an old favourite of mine.

In 1552, two little books appeared in the French marketplace. In my perfect world, I would own an original copy of each, but they’re rare and the author is so famous that any copies that appeared would be snapped up for an impossible sum. I own a translation of the books, into English. I could read the original (historians have some handy language tools) but haven’t ever found a modern edition. I was in France in 1995 and found the English translation there. It’s not a big book, even though it rudely fits two old books into one.

Who is this well-known author? Michel Nostradamus, who is more known as a prophet and as a physician than as a cook. Whenever I’ve encountered people who get excited when they hear his name it’s because they want to argue about prophecy. Right now, though, his background as a plague doctor is more appropriate. He was one of the best known and possibly one of the most competent plague doctors in sixteenth century France.

I considered this when I was in the emergency department of the medical side of the university at Montpellier, for he studied there and I had a mysterious disease. I didn’t have plague. But I dreamed of my favourite recipe from Nostradamus’ cookbook as I rested after the appointment and slowly recovered from what turned out to be the side effects of being bitten by a tick. The doctor laughed merrily with his assistant, when they worked out I was Australian and yet had been infected by something in England. They looked up Australia on the computer and noted all the dangerous spiders here and all the snakes and then said “And she went to England for this. York, in the rain.” The actual diagnosis took maybe a minute, and they wrote out prescriptions and descriptions for treatment when they’d finished laughing. At that precise moment I wished I had less French because I could understand every joke they made at my expense.

Nostradamus’ quince recipe was my safe hiding place, I think.

I was in Montpellier researching Langue[dot]doc 1305, but I didn’t call on that incident at all for it. The illness meant I only had a few hours of research a day, because I really wasn’t that well.

I managed to complete all my work thanks to the kind help of people at desks. Two were the senior curators of museums, masquerading as sellers-of-tickets. I asked each of them where I could go in their museum to answer a couple of questions I had. We chatted a minute and they decided to talk me through everything I needed. Two hours, in each case, with people who knew more about the precise material I needed than were in any book. One also sold me a hard-to-find book I desperately needed, so I read that during my many hours of enforced rest.

Hearing the medical jokes at my expense was the downside of having enough French, but being able to talk the Middle Ages with experts was definitely the upside. It might also have helped that I knew a fair amount already: I was asking as an SF writer, but had a PhD in Medieval History backing it.

The third desk person was at the tourist office in the town I was setting the novel in. She had copies of unusual material hiding behind the desk and brought them out for me. In return, I told her how to make Nostradamus’ version of quince jelly.

I wish I had been able to go back one more time after I had digested all that material, because there are some questions I really wanted more answers to. I live on the other side of the world, and a return visit wasn’t possible. Still, Nostradamus and his recipes have an indelible link with Langue[dot]doc 1305.

I didn’t put even a single recipe for quince jelly in the novel. I regard this as neglectful, but I can tell you now, even my mother thinks that he had a very fine recipe. She tested it, some years back.

Before My Brilliant Career

I escaped my flat some days ago, with help from a friend. Of course I thought of a book, and today I took it from my shelf so that it can talk to me while I write. Let me give you a single picture from my trip across the border into rural NSW, and then I shall introduce you to one of my favourite books about this region. There are many books written by local writers. This region has produced writers from the moment anyone who knew the alphabet lived here. This particular volume is by Miles Franklin who, according to her Sydney writer friends, was one of the most generous people imaginable, and had enviable hair.

Canberra region
picture: Gillian Polack Feb 2022

Canberra the city has mountains within it and mountains nearby. We’re so high above sea level – I’m typing from just below 650m above sea level right now, and I live at one of the lowest points – that the mountains look like hills. Before this region was decided upon as the capital of Australia, it was a place where several peoples me (today we call it Ngunawal land because the Ngunnawal are the traditional owners of more of the ACT than the other groups, but the Australian Capital Territory is more complicated than that. Our borders don’t follow the custodial boundaries. A map may help. (My favourite map is a Ngarigo map. It’s an extraordinarily lucid map that makes everything very clear– but I can’t find a copy of it online.) European settlement was mainly farms, with a church, a schoolhouse, and a couple of villages. Most of the people who lived on this land were, in fact, not European until this area became the national capital.

The Franklins were one of the local families in the nineteenth century. I have seen the old rose bushes from the Franklin property (they’re now quite wild) and been stared down by kangaroos in a part of the national park that Franklin would have known as a farm. I’ve been atop Mt Franklin (named after Miles’ family) and climbed (a little) of Mt Aggie (named after her aunt).

Miles Franklin, herself, lived in this region for the first ten years of her life. She was born in 1879, and the 54 years she lived elsewhere was mainly in cities.

Miles Franklin (actually Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was a fascinating person. My personal favourite of her noms de plume (for she had several) was Brent of Bin Bin. There’s so much in her life that’s not generally talked about: how she supported other writers, what she did with her life outside the most famous books. The edge has gone off the fame of the novels. Most people recognise the name because Franklin’s name is on one of Australia’s most important literary awards (we all dream of this award, but I’m the wrong kind of writer for it, so dreaming will have to suffice).

Neither My Brilliant Career (the famous novel that was turned into a movie) and My Career Goes Bung (its sequel) are on my desk right now, for Franklin used her post-childhood experiences to write them. The book on my desk is tiny, and full of colour. Childhood at Brindabella is my comfort-book and is not an autobiographical novel, but an actual autobiography. Franklin’s childhood at Brindabella Station is at its heart. This book is where I discovered that we are low in lyrebirds in this region because of the US trappers in the nineteenth century, who wanted to feathers for hats. It’s where I learned about how to transport sewing machines to places that still don’t have sealed roads.

I could tell you favourite bits of it until the cows come home. It’s under 160 pages long, however, so it’s better to read it yourself. Then come to me and I will tell you how this region has changed and find you recipes from Miles’ childhood. Despite all the changes, we still have more writers per capita than we ought. Miles Franklin will always be one of the best.

Finding comfort in reading

Today I want to write about something reassuring, comforting or even cheering. The last few weeks have been isolated and the solution has meant much sleep and a bit too much discomfort and pain. This is more than somewhat typical of the lives of far too many of us right now.

I explored my library for comfort reading. Normally, when in crisis or misery, I’d take a large stack of books off the shelves and pile them to be read until life improves. Tonight I discovered I’ve already done that. None of the books I most needed were there. I couldn’t find the stack I’d put them into and so I thought, “I have around 7000 books. I can find another comfort read to talk about.”

I did better than that. I found my copy of Van Loon’s Lives (written and Illustrated by Hendrik Van Loon). My copy is from 1957, and has the same cover as the one I found in the local library. I first discovered it when I was teen recovering from whooping cough. Or maybe I’m simply linking the two, because I had a vaccination and am full of some of the aches that went with whooping cough. I re-read it again soon after, when I was confined to bed for two very slow weeks because something was wrong with my back.

I thought then, “Why is this like What Katy Did, and yet… not?” One reasons is that Katy addressed her illness by moralising. If she turned into the right kind of person, then she would be fine. By the end of her ordeal, she was over her illness and had become of the centre of the family. Perfect outcome. I got over my illness much faster (and, to be honest, it wasn’t severe, just a shock to not be able to get out of bed without help and to be unable to do most things) but I haven’t been and never will be a central point for my family.

Also, two weeks is not a long time. It feels like a long time for a teenager, but, in the absolute scheme of things, two weeks passes.

All of this meant that What Katy Did is not comfort reading right now. But Van Loon’s Lives is, despite the fact that Van Loon invites Torquemada for dinner but has a lack of interest in fascinating Jews. Even if I were one of the great people of history, I’d not have been invited.

Why?

It’s a book that’s full of historical dreams. Each chapter is a dinner party with famous guests from Van Loon’s sense of the past. I could read a chapter back then and that chapter would lead me to memories of other books and thoughts of what I wanted to learn about history. The first Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, and, while my body was recumbent, my mind argued for hours about the Elizabethan material Van Loon invented and that Alison Uttley used in A Traveller in Time. That’s the special magic of Van Loon’s Lives. It’s a fantasy novel. The food is wrong, the history is not the history I know today and, even as a teen I as wondering about it, but, back then, it brought famous historical figures to life and made that enforced bedrest less intolerable.

Van Loon’s most interesting historical figures matched mine when I was a teenager. We were taught, in Australia in the 1970s, that there was nothing interesting in Jewish history but that European Christian history was magic. I wanted to meet almost all the people he wrote about. Some I knew about already (Elizabeth, for instance, and Voltaire – Voltaire is someone I’ve read a lot, but cannot like as a person), while others were my newfound lands, and I began to explore who they were and what they did (Erasmus and Descartes, always come to mind). This fantasy book triggered a whole new path of independent learning, a couple of years before university offered me formal tracks. I remember feeling so pleased that I worked out how to cook Van Loon’s own speculaas from his description in the book. It wasn’t the first bit of food decoding I’ve done from literature, but it was one of the most satisfying.

It’s been so long since I first read it that I suspect that I’ve forgotten most of what I discovered back then and really ought to begin again.

A few years ago, when I finally found my own copy of the book, I realised I had changed and with my changes came a new interpretation. As an historian, each chapter and its meal and guests told me much more about Van Loon and the way he saw the past than it told me about the history of any other period. I realised that I had learned to discount myself and my own history. It wasn’t just family I would never be central to. It was part of a reconsideration of what I knew and why I knew it and who I was. This is part of the trail that led me to write The Wizardry of Jewish Women, The Time of the Ghosts, and The Green Children Help Out. Instead of arguing from my sick bed, I argued using my own fantasies.

And now, why is it comfort reading again? Van Loon’s Lives was first published in 1943. Hendrick Van Loon wrote his book under a kind of lockdown. He was in exile from his homeland, which was under Nazi occupation. Nothing like our COVID lockdowns. In its way, this set of dinner parties is an emotional safety net for the war that was then raging. Van Loon himself doesn’t leave the war out of the volume, and the epilogue that one can’t know without investigating his life is that he wrote the book when in exile and died before the Nazis were defeated. He never went home.

It’s a comfort book right now because it’s a reminder that other writers have handled the impossibilities of life. We talk a lot about Camus, because he wrote about plague and we know plague. But the isolation of great change and the memory of how very welcoming and magic life was just a few years before the world turned upside down is just as important. It provides a way to evaluate the world that contains some emotional safety. Hendrik Van Loon sets the novel in the 1930s, when his world was safer and it was fine to invite famous guests from different times and different places.

I wonder if it’s time for another fantasy dinner party book to be written for our own comfort? Who would it include? Who should we leave out? One thing’s for certain, all the food history I’ve done in the last forty years would be useful. I know what to feed Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth I and, yes, even Erasmus. I don’t know if I’d invite Jefferson or Elizabeth or Erasmus. Time for a new set of thoughts triggered by this single volume.