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…

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.

Virtual Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Gillian meanders, intellectually

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Making fertiliser

The other day I noticed that I wasn’t the only person who was tired. We’re all emotionally exhausted. If life were the same as it usually is, this is when we’d take time off and maybe even go on holiday.

I wrote those sentences then my thoughts led me into talking about how holidays are affected even for those who can still take them and I realised… one of the reasons we’re so tired is because there’s no escape form the pandemic. I’m in iso. As long as I am in iso, I’m safe. It should be simple, really. I should be shut off from the emotional fatigue. But it isn’t. And I’m not.

This is the moment I need to call forth my promise to myself.

Life has been challenging for me for a few years now, and I told myself that if I was going to continue to have garbage thrown at me, I was going to turn it into fertiliser and grow the best garden. When I remember this, the exhaustion takes a step back. Let me make some fertiliser right now.

I like lists of ten, so I’m going to list ten things that make life that much easier when one is Gillian in a pandemic.

1. Soft material. I use an amazingly soft blanket to snuggle in, and every time I do this I fight the long time alone.

2. Basic dance exercise. Keeps my body capable, even when I can’t go outside for weeks on end and things hurt. Also means I can fling my arms around flambuoyantly.

3. Chocolate. I don’t need to explain chocolate.

4. Other peoples’ stories. Books and TV and streaming services – when things get too much I can dig a hole in someone else’s world and only emerge when I want to. I choose to call this fairy tale groundhogging, for I found a Cinderella film last night and it took me right back to the days when there were solutions to problems. Now… not so many solutions, but I’m still allowed to dream.

5. World building. I finished writing a novel and the next one is a while off for I have to build a world. This gives me so many excuses to delve into intellectual places I normally don’t have enough time for. Six months I have, to delve. Maybe a year. To imagine a different world. Then I find a few people in that world and I write about them, but this deep level of world building is such a good place to be. I have a giant piece of paper on the back of the door, I have two notebooks… and this time I’m auctioning off place names to raise money for SF fans to meet each other. The geography of my three new countries will give a bunch of people what the world building does me: a feeling of being in contact with others at a time when… we aren’t so much.

6. Cooking. Today I intend to cook enough curries to last me one meal a day until after the weekend. Cooing calms me right down. I also talk to myself. When I’m in the middle of a novel, I might talk to my characters or argue with my plot. While other writers pen more drafts… I cook.

7. Online conferences. I can turn the vision off (so no-one sees me in my PJs) and listen to academics talk about their fascinating research while I do those stretches and gentle exercise and fling my arms around. A university professor says something that changes my own research or is important to my writing, so I stop in the middle of a paper and race to my desk and take notes. Free online academic conferences are the best form of academic training or updating for writers. I can break down stereotypes and I can learn how coin hoards change the way we see a place and its coinage and I can be reminded of the Welsh triads. Right now my world building is dominated by what I recently learned about Celtic Law because the experts in that law were handily on my computer.

8. The capacity to lose my temper without hurting anyone. Let’s face it, to only see two or three people in real life over a period of months is not an emotionally good place to be in. Chronic illness and iso leave me ready to snap when someone tells me off for being ill, or who thinks it’s a privilege to be single and of my age and alone. I lose my temper to myself, privately, then turned the garbage into fertiliser and asked everyone to think about chatting with me on Zoom. And now I have friends around me from a distance and I’d love to say I never lost my temper directly at anyone in achieving this, I’d love it if that side of things was very private… but I only lost that temper once in anyone else’s presence. Things are not easy for any of us. We often only see the good things in the lives of others because it’s so important to get through things. Having space to lose my temper and to curse the world and to move past it and regain civilisation is a lovely luxury.

9. I own the shell of an emu egg. It looks like a large, speckled avocado, but it’s an emu egg and it’s mine. My next dream is cook with the other parts of an emu egg, but that’s harder to achieve. Another dream is to paint emu eggs, but I’m not good at painting and the egg shells are not cheap. Painting is easier to achieve in the US, where emus are farmed. My egg comes from an emu that was never constrained and constricted and (given emus) quite possibly bullied children. I was bullied by emus as a child. And now I have an egg.

10. I can take moments to ponder the important questions. My important question at this precise moment is whether other places have birds that bully in the way emus do. We also have cassowaries, but I’ve never met one because they’re far more dangerous than emus. And we have magpies that swoop. It’s swooping season right now, in fact, and I’m safe inside and cannot be got. I wish I could see a person on a bike, with a mask to protect from COVID-19 and a helmet studded with spines to protect against magpies. In fact, I wish I had a picture and could make postcards with funny comments.

This post was brought to you by a way-too-early swooping season and by an emu’s egg.