Tradition and cholent

I’ve been looking at maps this week in my spare time and it was Purim over the weekend. Purim is an historical festival, not so much a religious one, so I always try to make sense of a bit more Jewish history as my learning for the celebration. I was perplexed as a child when non-Jewish families didn’t do learning as part of their celebration. This is a tradition. My tradition is not that of Fiddler on the Roof! and the song “Tradition”.  It is learning and food, much food. There are many Jewish cultures. Learning is one of my favourite bits. It ranks as high as chicken soup.

When I was a teen, I had this conversation.  It began with me asking, “What did you learn for Christmas?”

“I got these presents, let me show you. You show me your presents, too.” Chanukah collided with Christmas that year, as it did from time to time, but my friend was totally baffled when I showed her my present for fifth night, which was a small box of Smarties (Australian M&Ms). Me, I had present-envy. I didn’t get presents such as hers even for my birthday.

I am a slow learner. The next Easter I asked a Greek Orthodox friend.

“What did you learn for your Easter?”

“We didn’t learn. We dyed eggs red and cracked them.” She had some dye left over and we totally messed up my mother’s kitchen and destroyed many candles making decorated eggs. We didn’t crack them, because Easter was over. We put them in a bowl and left them on the counter until my father complained about the smell.

Later I found that not all Jews learn every festival. But it’s my tradition and I love it.

This year’s choice for Purim was propelled by the sad fact that historical research and research for novels all take planning. I was considering actual Jewish populations along the Rhine at different times for something I’m looking into later in the year. I had a crashing thought that had me investigating maps last week. I used Purim to give me the time to make everything make sense. Tomorrow I’m back to my regular resaerch, which is currently wholly in literary studies

For all this (except the literary studies), I blame cholent.

Cholent, the dish, is a Jewish slow-cooked casserole from (mostly) Eastern Europe. Its name, however, most likely comes from French. We talk a lot about European Jews migrating east, but the most popular explanations and timing don’t fit Western European history. Yiddish is a lot more recent than the first migrations, and… it’s complicated. I made it understandable using maps. The maps themselves don’t explain things – they triggered the explanations, which is why there are no maps in this post and only one link to one. I answered a lot more questions that night and this weekend than I could give in a post – the question of Jewish movement eastward, for instance, must wait.

I began with a map of the Roman Empire at its pre-Christian peak. There were millions of Jews distributed throughout the Roman Empire as citizens, as non-citizens, and as slaves. I’ve seen estimates of numbers ranging from one million to ten million, and I usually use four million as a compromise number to work with.

Four million is over a quarter the size of the modern world Jewish population so, a while back I calculated how many Jews we would have around today if history had been kinder. It was in the vicinity of 320 million. Eighty million if you take the minimum number of Jews in the Roman Empire and over a billion using the largest estimate. We would not be such a tiny minority, in other words, if we had progressed simply because the world population has expanded and we had not been forcibly converted, mass murdered, exiled, enslaved, enthusiastically converted to other religions and so forth.

Populations follow trade routes and you can see evidence Jewish life along all the Roman trade routes. Well, all those where anyone has looked. Antisemitism is so deeply ingrained in our societies that many experts demand far more evidence for a Jewish burial than, say, a Christian one. There is a lot that probably needs to be re-evaluated in the archaeological record if we want to know actual Jewish populations in most areas.

Assessing the written record is easier, but not in a good way. The vast majority of Jewish records have been destroyed, and we’re reliant on surprising survivals such as the Cairo genizah. This means our knowledge through writing is patchy from anyone Jewish, because of the destruction, and biased from anyone else. Occasionally the bias is positive. Occasionally.

This means we really don’t know a lot about how many Jews lived in the Roman world, where they lived and how they lived. We know a lot more than we did, but we still have big gaps. We do know, however, the geographical limits of Jewish life and the trade routes related to much of the Jewish everyday.

The next map I thought of, then, was of Charlemagne’s empire at the time of its division into three, 843. I was thinking of places that were more antisemitic and less antisemitic and they pretty much follow this divide. It was easier to be Jewish in the central band of the empire (the one with Charles’ capital – which makes sense, because his personal confessor converted to Judaism and this does not seem to have ended the world) and a few key places nearby. These are all, in modern day Europe in eastern France (usually the parts that also speak German), the Saar, Italy, Provence and Burgundy. This became the Jewish heartland of non-Hispanic Europe in the Middle Ages.

It is the original Ashkenaz. It’s the Ashkenaz that made European Jewish marriages one husband to one wife, but refused to relinquish divorce despite enormous pressure from local Christians. Rashi, one of the great Medieval scholars, used the word ‘akitement’ for divorce: marriage in Judaism was and is a contract that can be acquitted, it’s not a covenant. European Jewish was both Jewish and European and that wide strip of territory that formed that heartland explains a great deal about us.

Ashkenazi culture spread east and changed and that’s a story for another time. It began to spread early enough so that ‘cholent’ could have a French name: it came from the Carolingian Empire after French developed as a language. Not before the eleventh century. Which is interesting because… I have another mental map for that.

In the late 8th century, a Jewish trade network operated from that region (and possibly Champagne). We don’t know a lot about it, but when I looked at its most known route, Jewish traders used those ancient fairs, with a special focus on Medieval fairs. I have a book with maps of every town in that region that had a fair in the Middle Ages and the dates we know those fairs operated and I cannot find it! So this is work for my future, after my thesis is done.

The Rhadanites were gone about the time that the Khazar Empire declined and fell, and one of their trade routes led to the heart of the Empire, so that’s something else to explore one day. About the time both faded from view, the Crusades began in Europe and persecution of Jews became far more severe. But… right until the mid-20th century, those towns were part of larger trade routes and had Jewish communities.

Every trade fair needed a route to the fair, and each stop was a town usually between 15-20 miles from the previous and also served as fairs for local farmers. In the Middle Ages, prior to all the murders and expulsions, so many of these towns had Jewish traders and craftspeople. And so many of those families would have cooked cholent or an equivalent.

This is a small fraction of what I spent one night and one Purim sorting out. I have to leave it now until September. I’ll write it up more accurately and less improperly when I’m actually working on it. In other words, these are my early thoughts.

Why did I share them with you, then? Part of the family tradition of learning includes talking about things. If anyone wants to talk about these subjects, this is a good place and a perfect time. Why perfect? Because all my thoughts are halfway right now. I could be very, very wrong in how I see things.

There is a tradition to this learning. The tradition is that you have to prove anything you want to challenge. Evidence! When I was a child and we argued without evidence it occasionally led to very sophisticated behaviour, such as the sticking out of tongues, which got us into trouble. Evidence is safer than the sticking out of tongues.

What’s the aim of challenging and providing evidence? That the learning may continue… (kinda like the spice must flow).

 

Tea time

Today I’m putting together notes for a talk I’m giving this week. I’m giving it from my desk, but most of the people at the other end of my computer will be in China. A talk on tea to China.

This is when I feel like a fraud, but it’s not that at all. I’m talking about tea history and how to prepare for time travel through understanding how tea was brought into Europe and North America. I have Russian silver and a reproduction Dutch cup and a bunch of other things to show and tell.

I used to teach these things and now I’m nervous because I’m giving a talk. Tea to China, I tell myself, is not chutzpah. Tea history includes what Linnaeus knew about the plant, and why there are no teapots prior to a certain date and where beef tea fits in. I intend to detour via portable soup when I talk about beef tea, because they’re related and I have some portable soup right now. I won’t make beef tea, I’m afraid because I have no love for it.

What else shall I talk about? Medieval herbals (briefly) and popular tea literature in the 17th century. What Marco Polo said (or didn’t say) about tea and my guess as to why. Tea substitutes, including during the US Revolutionary War and in the early Australian colonies.

Lots of things.

My aim is to finish most of it today, along with most of my Patreon material. I have 2 other talks to prepare this week, too. This is on top of my regular research, but it’s fun stuff on top of my regular research. As long as I get it done and all ready for the world SF convention, things are good. October is busy, but delightfully so.

I think that this post calls for a cup of tea. I have a rather nice oolong to drink this afternoon. Which reminds me, I haven’t included even a mention of British Malaya and its relationship with oolong into my talk yet. Nor how coffee and tea identity-switched in British at a certain moment. Nor… I should write.

Book Review: AMERICAN GHOST by Hannah Nordhaus

Ghost stories are an American obsession. We gobble them like smores around a campfire, with the wind whistling through the tree branches in the darkness behind us and unidentifiable noises keeping our nerves tingling. Hannah Nordhaus’s American Ghost is not quite that kind of spooky, though she shares her adventures from attempts to communicate with the spirit world to rummaging through crumbling historic documents and spending a night in a haunted bedroom hoping for a glimpse of her ancestor, Julia Staab.

Julia is famous for haunting a 19th century Victorian mansion in the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today that mansion is part of La Posada de Santa Fe, a luxury resort hotel, which openly celebrates its resident ghost. With a journalist’s determination, Nordhaus pursues the facts about Julia: whether she really haunts the Staab house, who she was in life, and how as a young bride she came from a small village in Germany to live in territorial Santa Fe with her new husband.

Abraham Staab, a man of modest means from the same German village, emigrated to America as a teenager and began amassing a fortune importing dry goods along the Santa Fe Trail and selling them to the the frontiersmen and military posts of New Mexico. By the time he returned to Germany to find a wife, he was well-to-do. Sixteen years later he was one of the wealthiest men in New Mexico, and he built an elaborate three-story mansion as a fitting home for Julia and their seven children.

In the absence of any diary or correspondence from Julia herself, Nordhous hunts for clues among the papers and oral history of Julia’s descendants, newspapers of Julia’s day, records of Julia’s physician, and the places where she lived. As she searches for elusive details about Julia’s life, the author is haunted by questions. Are the rumors of Julia’s madness true? Did the loss of a child drive her over the edge? Was she imprisoned in her home—perhaps even murdered—by her husband? Does her restless spirit walk the halls of her mansion, seeking some part of herself that is forever missing?

For a New Mexican who loves Santa Fe and its history, this book is a delightful exploration of a tempestuous period. The West was very wild when Julia arrived. As one of the few “American” women in Santa Fe, she played an important part in the evolution of the city toward a more civilized, if not yet entirely tamed, community. Her story is poignant and laced with the inevitable sadness of life, yet Julia remains an inspiring figure, and the reader cannot help being caught up in the hope that she will find peace at last.

And as the author of a series of novels featuring a haunted house in Santa Fe, I enjoyed every page of this book. I cannot help imagining Julia waltzing with my Captain Dusenberry in the third-floor ballroom of the Staab mansion (which is no longer there – it burned many years ago – but fortunately the rest of the house was saved). I am utterly delighted that we have secured La Posada as the headquarters for an event this fall – the Wisteria Tearoom Investigation – which will celebrate both Captain Dusenberry and Julia Staab.

Easter in 1903 and the importance of listening

Hot cross buns are being promoted all over the place right now, which means that Easter looms. I say ‘looms’ because Easter holds an amount of darkness for me. My family mostly doesn’t talk about it, but it is the moment when my family was told by its patriarch to flee. “Children, run!” he said (but in Yiddish).

I think it’s time we talked about this.

My great-great-grandfather was one of the 500 people hurt (with intent, with malice, with much antisemitism) in the Kishinev pogrom. I don’t know what other damage was done to the family. All I know about it was that he was hurt and saw the writing on the wall for Jews in his home town and that he told his children to run.

The anniversary this year is just before Easter. The pogrom was intentionally during Easter. It’s an historical thing in the Christian world, to hurt Jews on Christian festivals. This is why I strongly suggest that those who want Jews to have Christmas trees or eat hot cross buns should not press it if they meet “I don’t do this things”. You may be touching on hurtful ground if you’re talking to someone who still has that memory of the pain. Also, do not ask us, “Do you remember exactly how your family got hurt on Easter/Christmas?” I’m telling you here, about my family. Let the story of how my family fled across the world because it was unsafe to be home, during Easter save other Jews from that question.

The blood libel played a part in the pogrom, but it was a lot more than that. Nearly half of Kishinev was Jewish, so it wasn’t a small minority being hated by the majority. It was literally people saying, “Let us destroy half our neighbours.”

The blood libel was an excuse. False accusations of murder of a Christian child.

As I interpret it, the pogrom was organised with the help of a newspaper and in a somewhat similar way to the January 6 event in the modern US. I’m reliant on translations and everything hurts to read, because my family was damaged. So… I suggest you read about it. I’ll have links shortly, and one of those links leads to a book on the subject. One day I must obtain that book and read it and understand … today is not that day.

Ironically, the first time I heard about the whole linking of Jews to blood thing was during Passover (near Easter, but that year, not quite the same days) when I was in primary school. I’d brought extra unleavened bread into school because some other children like to try things and assuaging curiosity has been, for me, a good way of reducing the antisemitism.

One child shouted at me, “I can’t eat that, it’s got the blood of babies in it.” I tried explaining kashruth because if one understands kashruth then one understands just how offensive the ‘Jews drink the blood of babies’ statement is. It goes against so much of who we are. That didn’t help

The next day, I brought the rest of the box of matzah in and ask the other child to read the ingredients.

“Flour, water, salt.”

“Which of those is babies’ blood?” I asked. She tentatively nibbled a bit and agreed there was no blood in it and lo, for the rest of primary school I was safe from that particular accusation. To replace the blood of babies, the group she mixed in all decided that I had personally killed Jesus. At age nine. They told me so.

Being a science fiction person already, I asked if that meant I invented a time machine. They were flummoxed and refused to let me play with them. I was flummoxed and started dreaming of things I could do with a time machine. This is when I knew for a fact history was going to be part of my future. And that murdering people was not something I wanted to do. Ever.

Anyhow, back to the 1903 pogrom that destroyed my family’s very middle class life in a major city on the other side of the world…

Here’s a summary. I chose this one because the man in the white hat in the top picture, looks very like one of my uncles: https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-a-small-pogrom-in-russia-changed-the-course-of-history/

It was important historically, as this article suggests. Japan had already begun its road into imperialism, but the inefficacy of the Russian leaders in preventing the pogrom led it to think about the rules of war in unexpected ways. To me, this also suggests that Pearl Harbour was part of a pattern: https://besacenter.org/kishinev-pogrom-russia-japan/

Why am I talking about it now? Because I offered to answer questions about antisemitism in a couple of for a now that it’s getting bad again. I want to do my bit to make it hurt less.

This is why.

I am mostly of refugee descent. At the heart of the way I view the world is always being told that I’m an outsider, that I don’t have full human rights, that I don’t belong.

This has taught me that I need to be public about antisemitism. I need to talk with people about it, even if it gives me pain.

If someone says they hurt because of prejudice, listen to them and hear what they’re saying. Then do some homework before explaining things back to them, trying to solve problems, or telling them someone else hurts more. All of today’s post is about the reason just one branch of my family fled. It’s fine to take learning about these things one step at a time. What is not fine is ignoring or explaining back or assuming we are at fault for the bigotry of others.

This whole post was triggered by it being Easter soon, and by someone telling me that I hadn’t factored in other bigotry when I was specifically talking about antisemitism.

It’s one of those years. I’ve had them before, but… they exhaust me on so many levels. Be gentle to anyone from a minority background. Jews are the canary in the bigotry coalmine. If we’re hurting, you can guarantee the bigots are out in force and attacking other people as well. If you can’t think of anything you can do that will help, try listening. Listening and hearing are such big gifts.

An Interesting Monday

I planned to blog on my yesterday, but the world caught up with me. It’s still Monday in the US, however, so I thought I’d talk on what caught up with me and prevented me writing on my Monday. Not everything. Honestly, you don’t need the details of a migraine and some of the more interesting (and quite unsavoury) symptoms. Just let me say that for some of us, migraines affect the stomach as much as the head and that there were many things I was unable to do yesterday.

Three big things made my Monday unforgettable. One of them would have been quite enough. Let me talk about them in chronological order.

First, a very fine meeting. I chatted with the actor doing my audiobooks. I didn’t know enough about audiobooks (and was too ill) for the actor who read Langue[dot]doc 1305. I heard the first fifteen minutes and asked if he had any questions and we had an email exchange and that was about it. I will always regret not being there for an actor who was new to this work.

This time, because the new reader-of-my-books is American and my accents are seldom US, and she’s reading the Australian settings and locals know best how to pronounce words like Garema, Manuka and even Canberra, we’re talking about my books more.

It was a wonderful meeting. It took a big chunk of my work day, but was so worth it. She had sorted out how to say Manuka and Canberra earlier, so yesterday was only Garema, which means, mostly, we talked about accent. She’s not reading my novels in an Australian accent, but a more British one.

Australian accents are kinda impossible for people from the US and not that easy for most other actors outside Australia and New Zealand. Some sounds, however, are closer to US English than to the Cockney that Australian sounds like to many, and we talked those through. Australians pronounce ‘h’, for instance.

It was a fascinating conversation. I now know a lot more about why our accent is so imponderable for so many US listeners. I also know now that my English is, in some vowel sounds, halfway between the US and the UK.

The second thing was learning of the death of Maureen Kinkaid Speller. This is a terrible thing. We needed at least two more decades with her in the midst of fandom, educating us, supporting us, and telling us of the adventures of her beautiful cats. In 2018 we talked about not being able to see each other. I’d planned to spend as much time with her as she could stomach, talking about books and both of our research. Those visits all were postponed by COVID. I have a hole in my life where those conversations should have been and a gaping maw in the place Maureen herself inhabited.

I’m not alone in this. I suspect Maureen never knew just how important she was to so many people, even those like me who she only saw from time to time.

I knew her online a little and then discovered the full wonder of her mind and her sense of humour when she interviewed me (about Life Through Cellophane/Ms Cellophane) for London fandom over a decade ago. Her kindness that day, when I’d just got off the plane from Australia and was entirely jetlagged and had no idea I was ill and… her kindness and her insights into my work meant a lot to me, and capacity to get me through that interview and make it a good one despite my condition was amazing. That was the day I planned many more long conversations.

Yesterday I discovered that I’m not the only person who found her a quiet pillar of light. So many of us…

The other death the whole world has known about for a little while, but the funeral is now done. Much pomp and ceremony. Many hours of TV. I only watched some of it, because of the migraine and because of the time – I wasn’t going to stay awake all night, even for something this historically important.

The thing is…Australia is now ruled by a king. Furthermore, that same king was the man we asked politely not to be our Governor-General decades ago. Australia is, to be blunt, both respectful and also a bit sarcastic about our head of state and about the head of the most important religious denomination here.

This raises so many questions about what kind of democracy we have and want. The last elections showed what kind we want, but the role of the Governor-General was questioned this month when Hurley did political things that he was not supposed to. He asked for (and got) $18 million to establish a leadership institute. That money has now been rescinded, but it leaves the question that we all felt in the 70s… if the Governor-General plays politics, wouldn’t we rather have a president than a queen (now a king)?

The monarchy has played a very quiet, gentle role in most of Australia’s independent history, and every time a Governor-General tries to change that, we get angsty. David Hurley established his little leadership scheme and distressed many of us. John Kerr dismissed the prime minister and distressed more of us. While most people still voted for the opposition, this didn’t mean they were happy with Kerr. He couldn’t be seen in public for most of the rest of his life without incurring some really nasty comments and at least once, thrown tomatoes.

There is a third death, but it was all over last week. The mention of Whitlam’s dismissal and John Kerr reminds me of it. Sir David Smith, the man who kept the Governor-Generalship going, despite Kerr. He was secretary to the Governor-General, and bore brutal public nicknames while still maintaining friendships with all parties. He quietly kept Australia going through that crisis in the 70s. Sir David was such a good man and so important in so many ways, that an ex-Prime Minister came to his private memorial service.

I knew him, for a number of reasons. In fact, I met Whitlam through him. Ask me and I’ll tell you that story one day. It involves a pink shirt.

So much of the critical aspects of Australian politics happen quietly. We are more like Britain than the US. When I was in training to be a policy wonk, we were given “Yes, Minister” as training material. The nature of most things political, especially these two important deaths, is the flavour of the week and yes, Maureen and I have spoken politics and I wanted to talk politics with her some more. More than any of the others we’ve lost, I shall miss Maureen Kinkaid Speller.

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?

The scent of books is the scent of toffied candied peel

Today I had a rather fun cooking accident. I’m making candied peel, and the doorbell rang. This candied peel has a bit of alcohol in, and the water hadn’t boiled out of it and… it boiled over onto the stovetop while I answered the door. I cleaned up some of it immediately, because dinner was impossible without any cooking elements for my frypan (my frypan is greedy that way – it won’t heat without help), and left the rest until later. ‘Later’ was just now for some of it. It had crystallised and could be cleaned off with an egg-lifter. When wet, it took so much more work to clear away.

While I was creatively using my egg-lifter (and is egg-lifter even a word in US English?), I thought about what book I should tell you about today.

Given that the other thing I did today was clean out all my herbs and spices and check their use-by date, the obvious book is to do with herbs. Just one book? Perish the thought. The only thing perished today were some very, very, very old herbs…

Let me introduce you to my perennial favourite herbals: Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal. I’ve had my Culpeper since high school. The powers-that-were made the mistake of letting us choose our own books for school prizes, you see. My Culpeper is much-used, and it still has a little bookplate explaining why I have it. I was awarded it for the Year 12 English prize, at Camberwell High School, in 1978. My copy of Mrs Grieves wasn’t acquired until at least two years later.

I might throw the Culpeper a fiftieth birthday party in 2028. It’s earned it. Both books have. They’ve been handy to me as an historian, as a writer, as someone who loves cooking, and as someone who’s curious about how we change the way we describe things. Thee two books were part of the stack I used to refer to as ‘my external memory.’ Much of my library is borrowable, but these two books do not leave my side. They’re always in the room I work. Always. This is despite the fact that I actually use e-versions when I want to look something up.

They’re too close to me to make introductions easy. They’re not my oldest books, nor even my earliest. This doesn’t make them less part of my life. I have other books that are equally important. When I was told I was going blind, one of the first things I did was decide that 200 books needed to stay with me, even when I can’t see them. Handling them will be grounding. I’m not blind yet, and my library has 7000 books – I’d own more, but many were stolen and my flat is full. I say this to make it clear how critical to my existence is any book in that ‘must keep even if I can’t see them’ stack.

I think we all have books like this. As of today, because of the candied peel and its wonderful interaction with my stovetop, I will forever think of the smell of citrus toffee (with a faint overtone of fine liqueur) when I think of these books. If you have a moment, I’d love to know if you have books you treasure the way I treasure these.

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

Sunshine and stories

I was just explaining to a friend on Twitter that my TV watching is related to my reading. It’s all part of my research. I have this driving need to understand story and to explain it. Right now, it looks (on the outside) as if I’m doing a complete rewatch of Doctor Who. There is purpose in my rewatch.

I reached a bit of an intellectual impasse in my research on how worlds are created by writers. The impasse isn’t a big one, but it’s an important one. My analysis was restricted because there was a factor in my own development that I was skipping over. An uncomfortable one.

The love of a TV show means we accept things in it that we possibly should not. As we learn more, we start to question. I’d already questioned the roles women play and gender plays on Doctor Who, but the English centrality means that I wince, for example, when rewatching The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s offensive and I’ve known this for years and it’s far easier to wince than to learn what decisions were made that created that offence. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is one of the pivotal sequences for this understanding, because when I first saw it I had close friends who were Malaysian Chinese. My friends were handling the fallout from the representation and I learned about that alongside them… but I still winced and didn’t face what it did to world building in science fiction (or in any story, to be honest). It affected how I build my novels, but there was always a blind spot because I winced rather than pushing myself to understand.

In the late seventies, I was delighted that I had friends who spoke the dialects the Doctor spoke (I remember saying this to one of them) but was at that point where I thought that the theatrical nature of the story justified the cultural outsiderness and errors (“It’s not your culture – it’s a stage thing.” That was my explanation, but it was far more an excuse than an explanation.). I was slow to learn, I think, how far my own life was affected by being an outsider, and this affected my capacity to look into what hurt others.

My work right now is on own voices for cultures that are invisible and in plain sight, both at once. The balance between the shape of specific cultures we put into our stories and the reasons we change them from their origins or ignore origins entirely and use prefabricated culture (the stage version, for example) is that place where invisible meets plain sight. Where were have these blind spots.

I’ll talk about that in my research write-up, when I’m further along. In order to do the research, however, I need to shine the light of day on things that I didn’t like to question. I need to ask myself why it was fine for me to watch this and enjoy it with only mild wincing and talk to my friends about it, even as they faced everyday bigotry based on the same notions and we talked about that, too.

There are several sequences in the late 1970s Doctor Who that are critical to this, for me. The rest of the watching is because taking them out of context doesn’t actually help me understand which aspects of the built world are invisible and which are in plain sight. This is not a one-off analysis, either. We don’t get a simple insight and become perfect people thereafter. We need to learn, continually. The robot sequence just before The Talons of Weng-Chiang reminded me, for example, me see how status and class and relative humanity are important in all of Doctor Who.

The presentation of different aspects of humanity changes over time, just as all our narratives do. Within the world of the Doctor, culture changes and what is safe to talk about and how people are introduced changes, too. A TV series that has been shown on and off for decades is a rather good tool for checking my own blindspots. It’s doubly useful because it’s not local to me. I will have to revisit Australian stories from the same times, soon. I need to bring more of the invisible into my clear day.

Some of it I watch with awareness. Other bits I focus on very, very closely. One of the bits I’ll focus on especially closely is what I like to think of as vampires in space. It was written by Douglas Adams. Enclosing a mind as vagrant as Adams’ then comparing this to one of his novels then checking how the radio play and the television versions are different again, illustrates rather well how narrative rules push us into this bias or that.

‘Bias’ is too simple a word, really. What I’m working on now is about what world we see as a suitable environment for stories and what stories can be safely told in them.

It’s Monday and I should give you a book to read and all I can talk about is TV and my research. There are other writers who do and have done research and the novel I’m going to give you to for your “Why does Gillian give me so much reading!” list is by one of them. Suzette Haden Elgin was the writer who taught me (without ever knowing who I was) that it’s possibly to ask the big questions and to do serious research and to translate that research into totally captivating fiction. I haven’t read much of her work, because every time I read something I want to think for a while before reading more. Native Tongue is a very fine place to start. My warning is, however, that most languages in fiction read as half-baked once you are in the Suzette Haden Elgin rabbit hole. Most writers invent language without considering what it does in society and culture. It’s very hard to unsee the gaping holes once you understand what languages are and how they can work.

It’s that clear sunshine on the hidden…

Much wittering followed by some recipes

Today I have written a great deal. That great deal added up to a very short story and a few hundred words of non-fiction. It just felt like a great deal. I suspect this was because I am surrounded by autumn storms. Everything feels like a great deal when one is surrounded by storms.

Normally I walk my bookshelves to find you an interesting book to talk about. Because I have met two whole deadlines today (two!) I thought I’d take the easy way out and write about the nearest book to me. I forgot that I had six of my own books in reach because I was talking about them to someone. And yet, the weather is about to break (I have a very handy weather sense) and I need to finish writing this before then because when there is a storm literally overhead, I doubt I’ll be writing to you about interesting reading.

I’m taking the interesting route. On my computer I have – like so many of us, these days – an elibrary. I’m going to open a folder at random. The folder are labelled with the alphabet, except the historical food one, which is labelled ‘Cooking.’ Just typing about that particular heading led me straight into the Cooking folder, so let me find you a cookbook or historical food book of particular interest.

I opened the folder and was curious about one that wasn’t properly labelled at all. It proved to be a transcription of the 1596 The Good Huswifes Jewell. Just the opening is delightful, and if I find it delightful then you’re stuck with it. Let me give you that opening, in all its gorgeousness.

The Good Huswifes Jewell “Wherein is to be found most excellend and rare Deuises for conceites in
Cookery, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson.
Wherevnto is adioyned sundry approued receits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases.
G.STEEVENS
Also certain approued points of husbandry, very necessary for all Husbandmen to know.
Newly set foorth with additions. 1596.
Imprinted at London for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North Doore of Paules at the signe of the Gun.”

If ‘Paules’ is St Paul’s Cathedral, then Edward White, the publisher, was in a part of London that had been book and scribe central since the Middle Ages. If you were in London in the thirteenth century and needed a notary in a hurry, the back of St Paul’s was the place.

I’m so tempted to simply let my mind rove in that district in the Middle Ages, and contemplate where I would buy parchment or commission illuminations, but this is a cookbook and my mind must remain resolute (the impending storm insists). Let me give you a recipe from the book, then. Everyone needs boiled chicken once in a while, and I’ve not made this recipe, so it’s a useful one all round:

To boile Chickins.
Straune your broth into a pipkin, & put in your Chickins, and skumme them as cleane as you can, and put in a peece of butter, and a good deale of Sorell, and so let them boyle, and put in all manner of spices, and a lyttle veriuyce pycke, and a fewe Barberies, and cutte a Lemman in pecces, and scrape a little Suger uppon them, and laye them vppon the Chickins when you serue them vp, and lay soppes vpon the dish.

I read this as using broth – I’d use chicken bouillon, because I always do when things are otherwise not clear. Boiling chicken in a broth sounds rather good, actually. Different broths would infuse it with different flavours. Butter and sorrel combined give a very smooth texture and flavour, and the verjuice might be to make it be not too unctuous. Barberries I love and have some on hand: they would add a fruitiness and also cut that unctuousness. In fact, I have most of the ingredients on hand. I’m just missing the chicken, the sorrel and the verjuice. Also, I’m missing bread. Without bread I can’t make sops. It’s just as well, really, because it’s 11.30 pm here and not the time to be making a chicken recipe.

In fact, it was a really bad idea to open that file and find you a recipe. I want to cook! Instead of cooking, let me find you another recipe from 1596. If you’re inspired to make either of these, I’d love to know how it went and, if you take pictures, it would make me very happy to see them.

Because most of you are heading for summer and the fruit is just beginning to arrive (we’re heading for winter and I’m eating persimmon and pomegranate and papaya while I can) how about a recipe that requires summer fruit? This one has fewer terms that need explaining, which is a bonus. I never know how much to translate, because it’s perfectly modern (Early Modern – I was making a bad joke) English. It all depends on how much cooking you’ve done and what kind of cooking. Stoves as we know them weren’t around in the late sixteenth century. A great deal of cooking was done over an open fire with a wonderful set of cooking equipment. This preserved fruit recipe, for example, uses the head of a pot covered by a plate, which is a very nice way of making sure the fruit stays whole.

To preserue all kinde of fruites, that they shall not breake in the preseruing of them.
Take a platter that is playne in the bottome, and laye suger in the bottome, then cherries or any other fruite, and so between euerie rowe you lay, throw suger and set it vpon a pots heade, and couer it with a dish, and so let it boyle.

Now I’m dreaming of apricots cooked this way and eaten with clotted cream.

I need to sign off before I start cooking. I so often do this I open an historical cookbook and then end up making something and not finishing my work. I shall leave you with one last recipe and no explanation whatsoever, and then I’ll finish all that must be done before this impending storm ceases to impend. Then I shall sleep and dream of preserved apricots served with clotted cream.

This last recipe is not quite a trifle as we know it today, but it is, nevertheless, kind of an ancestor to the Queen’s Jubilee dish that so many of my British friends have been making. Only kind of. I know its 18th century descendants and they’re all drinks. I am only missing the cream for this trifling dish. I would turn into something strange if I eat this at midnight, which is the precise time it would be ready, so I’m lucky I’m missing that cream (when you make it yourself, remember than thick cream has no gelatine or other thickener – it should dollop when you spoon it into the dish and must be at least 45% fat):

To make a Trifle.
Take a pinte of thicke Creame, and season it with Suger and Ginger, and Rosewater, so stirre it as you would then haue it, and make it luke warme in a dish on a Chafingdishe and coales, and after put it into a siluer peece or a bowle, and so serue it to the boorde.

 

PS While there is a place called West Wittering in the UK, and also one called East Wittering, alas, there does not appear to be one called Much Wittering. I might have to invent a fictional town, in Australia but with English tendencies.