Some Days…

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

This never happened when I was younger.

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

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

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

Meanderings: parties and work and dealing with life

I’m sorry I’m a bit late with this fortnight’s post. By ‘a bit’ I mean it’s the right day in the US and a day later in Australia.

I’ve been working on two big things (more about them in a moment) and also discovering that the social life this season is a bit bigger than I expected. Every other year I am excluded from most social events, due to being from the wrong background, not being able to drive, not having children: the usual. I get just enough friends in my life for two weeks so that I know I exist.

This year, everyone else has movement restrictions and we’re meeting online and.. there are still events I don’t get invited to, because people forget that I can come, but every day (every single day) there are other events.

I appreciate this so very much that a friend is setting me up a meeting place on 25 December (that’s 24 December in the US, for I am UTC+11) so that I can return the favour and any friend who is alone that day can drop in and we can chat. It’s only a few hours, for that’s a work day for me, but it’s happening.

I have one thing to finish before then. In fact, I need to finish it today. The other thing is ongoing. Two friends and I are designing a world for gaming and for writing in. One friend is an artist, the other is a writer with military background and me, I’m an ethnohistorian when I’m not a writer. The ethnohistory is the thing: our cultures hold together and are sexy and we all want to venture into this world we’re creating. My current role is to work out how our fairy tales would work in these countries. I’ve already done a Cinderella. There is no handsome prince in this one: Cinders has to find her own way out using her specific background. This Cinders bears grudges…

The other thing (‘thing’ is a technical word for me, which is my only excuse for overusing it, and it’s a very bad excuse) is my non-fiction. The book I finished in winter is being thoroughly edited in summer. This book makes a lot more sense now, and I’m not unhappy with it.

Today I’ll be finishing it and then it wends its way and I shall worry for its journey. Publication takes forever, and even an interested publisher may not want a book, when they read it again.

I love telling people what this book is about. I’m looking at how science fiction and fantasy novels communicate culture and operate as cultural objects. I’ve developed a bunch of tools for the analysis and those tools are so handy that the talk I gave about a few of them at this year’s European Science Fiction Convention had people chasing me to get the talk published. I needed a home for it that was a place these same readers knew, but the editors were slow to answer (or, in one case, has just let it slide without even an acknowledgement) so I’ve had to give up looking. At least one of my regular publishers was willing to help, but I need to be careful how I overlap my academic self and my fictional self. Unless I hear back from the silent publisher (which has a history of not answering emails from me, so I wouldn’t hold my breath) everyone can wait for the book.

With essays in general and with short stories, I won’t chase beyond a certain point, because if I do, then I won’t have time to write anything else. I’m not alone in this, but my disabilities/chronic health problems do have an effect on my time and energy. If I want to see any of my work in print, I assess it for how much time and energy it will take to get it there.

This applies to most aspects of my life. If I don’t have a copy of a book of mine, for example, or a bookshop has said they want me to visit and I have not turned up, it’s because I’ve chased it a certain number of times and can’t chase it any more without it eating into core things. ‘Eating into core things’ means physical pain which affects absolutely everything.

When people chase me up or answer emails or fill all their promises without reminders, my life is better. It’s the work equivalent of those end of year/Christmas/other parties I have to miss most years.

This wasn’t really a post about parties or the work I’m doing. I wanted to show you how I balance my particular physical limitations. The other thing that delayed me yesterday, you see, was a visit to the hospital, where I found out why typing hurts so much when I do the hard yards of reminding everything of all the things they forget.

Every single one of us is balancing a lot of things this year. We all have to put our needs and other peoples’ needs into some kind of order to get as much done as possible. And me, I need to remind myself that I can share the joy with an online party, but when a delivery doesn’t come because someone has slipped up or if emails have not been answered, I am not always capable of being the responsible soul who chases everything for everybody and keeps whole communities of work together.

We all have to prioritise this season. I’m using that need to find ways of handling the impossible workload writers often have. In all the lists I have, reminders are, oddly, the hardest to handle. Everyone with illness/disability is different. I’m lucky I can still write books and design worlds and research. Very, very lucky. Where I need support, it turns out, is getting them out into the world.

My lesson of the week (for I’m in learning mode, being a student again) is to apply this same equation to everyone around me and to let things go when I can’t solve problems. I get told “You should’ve reminded me” or “I thought I did that” or “Oops – maybe next week” and every time, it creates physical hurt for me, and I want to be angry at the person who causes the pain. My resolution is to get through this more lightly than I have. I need less pain and less judgement and more understanding. And I need to work out for every person around me what difficult decisions they’ve had to make in this difficult time and give them the space they need to deal with it. Until now, I’d be the one helping them get through. I’d take on work for them and sacrifice.

Sacrifices are more difficult now and parties are easier.

I need to return to my book and to stop letting my thoughts become complicated. Or maybe I need coffee.

If you want to find me on 25 December, let me know and I’ll share the link when it goes live.

Short Book Reviews and a Personal Story: Three Tales of Swans

Occasionally I find myself reading books with such similar themes or elements that the reviews naturally group themselves together. Below, on the other hand, are two very different stories that involve swans. Not as metaphors for supernal grace and beauty but as aquatic birds with nasty tempers. When my younger daughter was five, we took a family outing in a park that had swans. Because it was spring, the swans had young cygnets. I cautioned my daughter to not approach them, and she was being very careful when a mother swan took umbrage and came at her, hissing, beak extended. Without hesitation I jumped in front of the swan. I remember thinking I didn’t want to use my fists because that would bring my face within reach of the swan’s beak. I stood up and aimed a round-house kick at the swan’s neck. I have no memory of actually kicking the swan (although family members assure me that I did), only the swan backing away, wings flapping, still hissing madly. Here endeth the first tale of swans.

 

The Glass Magician, by Caroline Stevermer (Tor). What a delightful tale, set in an early 20th Century world in which humans are divided into ordinary Solitaires, shape-shifting Traders, and ecology-minded Silvestri. The story focuses on Thalia, a magic performer, and her manager, Nutall, who’s acted as a parental figure after the deaths of her parents. When a rival stage magician gets them booted from their gig using a noncompete clause, their future looks grim. Then the rival turns up dead and Nutall is the prime suspect. To make matters worse, Thalia, who has always believed herself to be a nonmagical Solitaire, under the stress of a trick gone dangerously wrong, shape-shifts (“Trades”). Newly fledged Traders are not yet in control of their powers and become the prey of magic-consuming manticores. Now Thalia’s very life is at risk until she can master her magic, at the same time she’s determined to prove her mentor’s innocence and unmask the real murderer. The world and its characters are beautifully, charmingly drawn, with the effortless skill of a consummate storyteller.

There’s a lot of very cool stuff about stage magic, fine characterization, a murder mystery, and a slew of plot twists. The thing that impressed me most, though, was the subtle use of swan imagery.  Thalia Trades into the form of a swan, hissing in irritation at the unfairness of life when she’s not preening her feathers. But swans also appear here and there, like bits delicate, snowy down.

 

The Wild Swans, by Peg Kerr (Endeavour Venture).  Silence = Death

At first, I experienced a bit of disconnection in these two parallel stories: one, a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans,” in which a devoted sister undergoes a terrible ordeal – about which she must remain silent – to free her brothers from an enchantment that turns them into swans by day, men by night; and a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story about a gay teen at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I found myself engrossed in Elias’s tale, which brought up memories of gay friends during that fearful time. The difference in my reading experience was partly due to my experience as a friend and ally, watching one after another of my friends become sick and die, remembering the atmosphere of fear and homophobia, the all-too-often rejection by families, and partly because in the Andersen tale, I knew what was going to happen. Since I was familiar with the story, I had no worries that Eliza, the sister, would prevail and that her brothers, once more restored to themselves, would rescue her from being executed as a witch. I didn’t know that not only would Elias’s lover, Sean, contract AIDS (and die), but that Elias himself would fall victim to the HIV virus. This journey, from Elias initially finding himself homeless after his family kicks him out for being gay, to meeting Sean and being welcomed into the gay and gay-friendly art and music community, to the evolving love story, engrossed me attention as it engaged my emotions.

For much of the book, I was puzzled as to the relationship between the two stories. There were a few obvious intersections, homophobia or rather hatred of homosexuality being one of them. It wasn’t until I closed the last chapter and mulled over the experience that I understood the deeper connection: Silence = Death. In order to break the spell, Eliza must cut, thresh, and weave nettles into shirts for her brothers, a long an excruciating process. I’ve brushed up against nettles, and the stinging is no joke (although to be fair, poison oak is worse). During that time, if she utters a single word, her brothers will remain swans forever. She cannot explain or defend herself, not even to save her own life.

HIV didn’t evolve because gay people hid who they were and whom they loved (for very good reason), but it flourished in an atmosphere of silence born out of fear. Eliza’s faithfulness arose out of love for her brothers, and the loyalty and solidarity of the LGBT+ community gave rise to movements like ACT UP that demanded action, and respect.

Part of the power of this story lies in the subtle resonances between fairy tale and contemporary tragedy. I say, “part,” because Elias speaks for himself. His story alone would have been an engrossing, heart-rending read. The juxtaposition of the Andersen story created a thoughtful, beautifully written pas de deux.

Reading and Writing – an update on my book problem

I have so many piles of books in my living area (which is also my work area) that even I feel the clutter. The reason this post’s title includes the words ‘book problem’ is because occasionally they topple and I tripped over one yesterday and…

I love them all. It’s not a problem in any sense except the clutter. I’m not reading just one good book this month, I’m reading dozens. They are my building blocks for a three-year research project (1), and I’m already having fun. Gradually, the piles will diminish.

One pile is for putting away. “I’ve finished this – it was fun but not terribly useful. I’ve taken the notes I need from it but they’re not relevant to anything I’ll be writing. It can go away. No need to put it in the bibliography.”

Another pile is carefully marked up. Not the books themselves – I have special sticky paper that doesn’t harm books and I write on that. When I’m ready to write that book up, I go straight to the notes and lo, it’s ready to go. I know what page to refer to in my footnotes and I have my thoughts on the sticky paper. Then I put the details of the book in the bibliography, and then that book goes on the putting-away pile.

The third pile consists of one book right now, called Putting the Science into Fiction. It’s not a scrap of use for my research project, but has some stuff in it I want to use as a reminder for world building. The world building has nothing to do with the research project. Until last Wednesday I did it full-time, but now I’m doing it as a leisure activity. The book will be put away when I talk through what it contains with my co-conspirators in world building, which could be next Monday, or it could be in three months.

The three largest piles relate to three of the core focal points of the research project. One is on fairy tales, one is on own voices, and the third is on writing about cultures that are a bit alien or foreign.

The piles I’m working through right now, however, are none of those things. Some are on writing technique, some are on genre, and some are on what makes narrative, and some are on rhetoric or critical theory. These are my reminder piles: it’s no use launching into research without checking that you know what you’re doing. It’s not enough to know this stuff as an expert or generally. I have to know exactly what elements I need for this precise project.

That’s all for this project, for now.

A proposal I put in for an academic paper was accepted yesterday. I’m about to start an extra pile (which will link into the project, but is right now just for the paper) will be about food in speculative fiction. This one is quite dangerous. Whenever I write about food, I have to cook things.

When people ask me what I love about research I am stumped. What’s not to love about reading fiction and inventing recipes to fit the food mentioned in the story? Although in this case I’ll be doing a critical analysis. Mouthfeel has to play a part. Maybe I’ll have recipes as the slides that illustrate the paper? After all, I have a nice collection of cookbooks that I can match to the foodways in the fiction. The most mouth-watering paper at an academic conference. It sounds good to me.

Writing long fiction is on the backburner for a bit, obviously, but my reasons are impeccable, as are my piles of books. Also, I did that thing that chefs do on cooking shows. There are three objects I prepared earlier, one that is out in paperback and now affordable (earlier research!) , one that is out already and the other is coming in a very, very short time. The same applies to next year – work finished a while back means that I shall research away and books will appear and everyone will think that I work 36 hours a day.

I don’t. But I do have impressive piles of books stacked everywhere they fit.

 

  1. For all of you, a footnote. For anyone wondering, yes, this research project is for a PhD. It’s not my first PhD, however, and Australian PhDs are only three years long and we start the research on Day One. Also, I’m more interested in the research itself and in working with two tremendous supervisors than I am with shouting, “Hey, I’m doing a PhD.” Because it’s all about writers and what they put in their fiction, I shall talk about the cool stuff here, from time to time. Ivory towers are a fiction, and research relates to the real world. This research relates to culture in fiction. And I am one of those people who write stuff into footnotes that people need to read. I did it for my first novel and I refuse to stop doing it unless I’m writing an academic piece. This is due to a certain warped element in my personality.

Living in small spaces during big times

Every few months there are five Mondays in a month. Also, I posted last week because … magpies. This means you hear from me three Mondays running, and this is only Monday #2. Brace yourself…

I broke iso on Saturday. There was a medicine I urgently needed and I didn’t want to ask a friend when I also had to post a letter and get some money form the bank. I walked under falling blossom and realised that I’d chosen to go outdoors the first day of the new season. The actual change of season isn’t until 1 September, but Spring arrived on Saturday. The only shop I actually went into was the chemist. There, I could see why I am not supposed to go near people. For every nine people using common sense, there was one who wanted to make the queue move faster by creeping up behind me.

I break iso once every six weeks, on average.

Just sitting in the sunshine reminded me that the outside world is not defined by the internet and Netflix. This got me wondering why I don’t feel the need to break out more often. All kinds of other people cannot stay in their homes even if they have gardens. They have to buy milk or bread every day. I only reach that level of stir crazy every six weeks, despite living in an apartment.

I suspect it’s partly because I’ve worked mostly from home for years. I don’t have to go out at all now, though, and so I have more time to catch up on silly films I missed.

I shall not list the films, for they are all ones I would not have gone to the cinema to see, except Hamilton. Hamilton is not a silly film, even though I ran an inner argument with it the whole time.

That inner argument is the other thing. I’m watching movies with Italian subtitles or Spanish subtitles where I can, for my insufficient knowledge of both languages makes me restless. A few minutes ago I started telling my TV screen that I had not fully considered the effects that the choice of ‘guard’ and ‘watch’ and equivalent words had over the way we think about possessions and people. Then I moved onto ‘save’. Look them up in Spanish and Italian if you don’t already know them. Take your time. Tangents for thought are perfectly allowable when one looks up words.

I was watching the live action Aladdin and had to pause it to do work, for otherwise a whole new plot would have accompanied the film.

Not that I object to whole new plots accompanying films. Earlier today I was thinking that three of the Star Wars films would be massively improved with a dubbed version that turned them into comedy.

I like music, though, and needed to listen to it rather than let my mind play with historical linguistics. I often dance to musicals, mildly, for it hurts. Every time I do this, the next day is less difficult so it is worthy pain. My dancing feet remind me that they are musicals and that I really shouldn’t drift too much.

My time sense has warped beyond all logic since the bushfires and COVID-19, but my mind takes me into some wonderful explorations. I was bored for an hour earlier this year and I tweeted it. It astonished me, that, in over twelve months of things being so seriously challenging, I should only have been bored that one hour.

I rather suspect I made a decision in my childhood that no matter how alone I was, I was not going to be lonely. I know I worked hard in my teens to develop this skill. I’m still working on some elements of it. I wasn’t expecting this work to give me the pandemic experience some of my friends crave. I hope there are classes on this for people who had lives that didn’t push them to develop this skill. I can’t imagine how awful COVID-19 in an apartment would be without my arguments with the TV screen or my dreams while I wash dishes. (I hate washing dishes.)

I am not alone in this drift of time and the richness it embraces. Quite a few writers I know are experiencing something similar. What I wonder is the possible relationship between problematic childhoods, a determination to not be defeated by them and us becoming writers.

My sentences are growing complicated and I’ve been sitting down for too long. Time for more Aladdin.

Comfort zones

My home life revolves around food two days a week. I love cooking and for a year I’ve had almost no-one to cook for.

I discovered some months ago that when I don’t cook, I get more stressed. I’ve been nodding sympathetically at people’s stories of the joy of baking and their discovery of sourdough.

I have a very large repertoire of dishes and I love cooking and… I’m on a bit of a restricted diet. Also, I have deadlines on top of deadlines.

This is why I liberate myself twice a week. To be honest, it’s sometimes more than twice a week and sometimes less. This week it’s been fewer long sessions but more sessions, because someone gave me many tomatoes and I made a tomato base for almost any food. It was one that took four days, on and off, because it’s winter here and tomatoes are watery. Six kilograms of tomatoes gave me 1 ½ litres of my sauce. I instantly gave a half litre to a friend who is helping me get out of the internet nightmare this month has been (I haven’t lost my internet at any stage, but my landline has been missing in action for twenty days so far), so I have just enough for seven days of interesting food.

When that was done, I looked in my fridge. I have trouble putting out rubbish (the bins are tall and heavy and 100 metres away, and I’m working on my lifting muscles so that I can regain that truly exciting fragment of my life) so when friends come by, they often take a bag of rubbish out with them.

Since I know this friend will be drilling in my wall tomorrow to help solve one of the problems that has been bugging things around here, I spent an hour tonight chopping up everything that looked old or in need of finishing. I threw out the bruised mushrooms and cut the rest. I found so many shallots, getting sad and in need of love. That was really all I did tonight. I have several containers of vegetables, and I have all that passata, and I have 3 meals’ worth of salads made, so I don’t have to cook until Friday. I will probably do another bout on Wednesday, for cooking helps me think, then I’ll leave it to the weekend. All the scraps are ready to go out and my fridge looks much less crowded.

What am I going to cook with the tomatoes and vegetables? I’m so glad you asked.

One container is earmarked for shakshuka, because I have everything I need for that except cayenne and I can wing cayenne given I have seven other types of chili. The other is for a pasta sauce with those mushrooms, some of the shallots (or maybe an onion), kalamata olives, feta cheese and maybe, just maybe, some green capsicum. These are both easy and quick dishes once one has a good tomato base, and this week is furiously busy.

I’m not cooking any bread. I can cook bread. I’ve cooked bread since I was a pre-teen. It’s not good for me and I love it and everyone else is talking about it all the time, so I’m not even going to make a flatbread to eat with the shakshuka. Yes, I’m sulking. Bread is fun to make and kneading gives me time to think and my writing is the better for it… but it’s not good for me. I have a right to sulk.

When I’m past this deadline I get to explore some of the more interesting ingredients in my cupboard. Some of my friends (who know me all too well) send me little parcels of local food from their country or they send me chocolate and tea. Food. I get occasional hampers of food from wise friends. I love these hampers and I eat most of them fairly quickly, then stash some parts away for when I need to be cheered up. I have herbes de Provence from France and chocolate from Ireland and grits from Germany and more, hidden so that on bad days when I open the larder and stare in misery, memories of those hampers stare back and I’m forced to smile and totally and entirely forced to cook.

Some of my ingredients are a little old now. I’m still saving them. I predicted the disruption to international post and knew my presents from friends would be rare for a time and I refused to not have my friends make me smile, so I checked all the use by dates and put the must-eat at the friend of the larder, the must-eat within a few months within eyesight (but not at the front) and the will-;last-forever under everything.

What’s very odd is despite the fact that I’m not supposed to mix with people (iso is iso – so many of us have health issues) I make sure I have enough food to feed several friend sin case they drop round. Which they won’t. Which, in fact, they can’t. But it makes me happy to know I can feed people.

This post was brought to you by my favourite (Korean) instant noodles. They are one of my cheer-up foods and they are currently unobtainable. I ate my last packet tonight. Don’t worry – I still have chocolate.

What We Lose, What We Gain

About 15 years ago most of my jewelry was stolen. None of it was very valuable, although there were some pearls and jade and a little amber, and a lovely pair of moonstone in gold stud earrings that had some monetary value. But, as is the way of things, each piece had a story that was part of my life. That was their real value, and hence the deepest loss. I’d had some of them since my childhood, and some had been gifts from loved ones who’ve since died. Some of it was my mother’s.

I went through the expected rage and frenzy, scouring local flea markets in the forlorn hope that I might spot a piece or two. Of course, I did not. When that stage had run its course, the police report filed (and, doubtless, immediately tossed), anger turned to grief, and grief to acceptance, and acceptance to looking in a new way at what I’d lost.

I wrote in my journal that although the thieves had taken bits of minerals, crystals, shells, fossilized tree sap, they could not steal:

the stories in my mind
the books I’ve written
my children
the redwoods
my dreams
my friends
their kindness and generosity to me
my capacity for joy…

Slowly, over the years, I have acquired a new collection. It’s smaller and more suited to who I am now. I discovered a few things from my mother, tucked away in an old cigar box with some broken bits and things I didn’t wear. Friends and family surprised me with simple, beautiful pieces: a strand of black pearls, an amber pendant, a necklace of silver and garnet dangles, tiny, amazingly delicate garnet earrings. I went through a period of needing “replacements,” and then letting them go. My daughters and I have swapped a number of pairs of earrings. It’s such a delight to pass them on. And to realize I don’t truly need any of this.

What I need are the people I love, and who love me. What I need is to write the stories in my heart. What I need is to work for a better world for everyone. In light of the covid-19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, my priorities have sharpened.

I look at what I have, what I have lost, what cannot be taken from me, what I have gained. Yes, I enjoy beautiful things. How much more dear to me are the memories that come with them. And how much more precious are the lives of those who are oppressed and terrified and suffering today.