Thoughts and questions about research

I’ve finished the two-month round of conventions and a bunch of interesting things have happened. This post is about one of them. It’s on Patreon and on my blog. Where follow-up happens depends on response. If there’s no response, I’ll continue at my pace and there will be no news on this subject for years. This means no results for the Helsinki conference paper until everyone forgets I delivered it. Let me apologise for that now. Let me also suggest that you comment on this post and add your opinions, for that will help make things happen.

Let me explain why.

Universities are not employing many people and I do not yet have a regular job. Given the current climate I may never get one. I’m getting less teaching at university these days, too. It’s not good. My research gets better and better and my teaching gets better and better and I have to do more and more of it outside the academy.

Suddenly all my work is in touch with present reality and if only I had a regular academic job in Creative Writing I could do all kinds of amazing things and find a regular way to get that big database. But I don’t and that’s also our present reality. There are very, very few academic jobs and I’ve been interviewed a number of times, but with no job yet, I can’t assume that a lectureship will be part of my future. (This isn’t just a shame for my research – it also means I don’t get to do most of the teaching that makes me so very happy. It’s sad for me all round. It’s also sad for thousands of other scholars who are equally bereft– we’re living in a very tough time.)

I gave my papers in Helsinki and in Melbourne knowing that the research might not progress beyond that because my on university doesn’t see most casual staff as researchers. I research on my own time and using my own money and resources. This makes research very slow, for earning money has to take priority and so does my fiction. It doesn’t matter how important the research is, it has to be secondary. It also means I’m reliant on the books libraries obtain in order to create my database for a critical bit of the analysis, which is a profound problem given the nature of my research.

So, what is my research?

My big project boils down to the shape of narratives, how narratives influence each other and the role novels and their contexts play in encoding, transmitting and communicating key elements of culture and identity. I’m analysing things like genre markers, world building, the nature of story space, cultural issues, transmission issues.

I’ve done preliminary testing. The big project is viable and I’ve sorted out how to go about it. The reception of my conference papers on aspects of the project and the discussions I had with a lot of academics in my travels made me realise that I’ve opened up critical subject for many people. I checked this out at three different conferences after Helsinki, with academics, with writers, with readers, with editors and even with a few publishers. The reaction was the same across two continents and any number of conversations. I was astonished to find this, and it changed my thinking about my research. That’s why I’m writing this post.

I’m already incorporating the research into my teaching. I’ve had four different workshops called ‘inspiring’ because of this. Four in a row. This isn’t because I’m amazing (alas), but because the early results gave really handy insights into how we put the cultures of others into our fiction and how different aspects of culture can be decoded by writers to help them write by choice.

The research, then, has already helped a bunch of writers unpick what they do and start thinking of what they can do. Some writers are scared. Some are excited. And this is just the beginning. For more, I need to do this big project. And it is a big project.

Certain aspects of my big project require a big database.

Waiting for funding won’t do the trick. I’ve applied for funding for a number of my projects and I’ve had answers for ¾ of the applications and the answers all told me apologetically how many people applied.

I was going to give up on the big project and just do some of the small side elements. I take comments on my work very seriously, however, and the comments from August and September added up to “We need this stuff and you need to teach it to us and write about it.”

Getting my database is obviously the first step in this. Data is the big thing that’s lacking, the time-consuming thing that prevents me moving on at anything less than glacial progress. I’d need at least 8 years to read over 2000 books and bring them into my study.

A few people suggested I crowdfund.

I’d rather do a crowd form of reading. This would actually work better for the project as a whole than me being the sole reader (especially if the readers come from a number of countries), for it would significantly reduce my personal biases and the limitations on what books I could get hold of. Anyone who read a book who wanted to add the details I need to analyse to a spreadsheet could participate. Not just me, but many readers. Everyone would get acknowledged. I’d stop the collection when it had covered enough works covering all the types of works I need in enough detail.

Today, this is just a concept. I could report on my blog or through Patreon. Patreon would work best if the participants were all patrons and my blog would work best for wider participation. Either way, through Patreon I could offer people my research thoughts as the project advances. It could be the crowdfunding if anyone specifically wanted to support this project and learn about it and might help give me some income for my research, the way it’s made such a difference with my fiction. I’d share my conference papers, some articles, and maybe do specific essays on interesting aspects or progress. Patrons finding out first. I’m suggesting this because of the interest my patrons had in that first conference paper.

Right now, I’m after questions and opinions and a general indication if anyone would be willing to add a bit of information about the books they read to a database (although if you want to discuss the Patreon aspect, feel free). The database information would partly be bibliographical (publication details, country of origin of both author/s and publisher) and to do with the background and roles given to characters. I’d list the questions that need answering. There’d be no reviews or long thoughts. It’s the data collection essential to make the project happen much faster. Entries could be from anyone who reads novels. One entry for each novel.

My questions today are:
1. Is this a good idea?
2. How many people want to join? (there is no funding – this is entirely voluntary)
3. Why can’t I find a better name than ‘crowdreading’ for it? I keep reading it as “crow dreading’ and this is not good.

Friday Events at Conflux

At Conflux a couple of days ago, I had my Friday celebration of still being alive and of having a career despite all kinds of big things going wrong. There were a bunch of people there (which – in the middle of a work day – is not a given) and some books were bought and my food was much enjoyed. The not-so-good was that my voice is still weak after the laryngitis and everyone was so busy chatting that most of them didn’t listen for me. I had to ask a friend with a stronger voice to get enough attention to give out door prizes, and only a few people heard him. This means the reading I prepared didn’t happen and the questions people told me they wanted answered didn’t even get asked. I regret this very much. It added to my list of what disabilities do when those around them don’t pay enough attention: those with voice or hearing issues have to deal with situations like this everyday. I knew this in theory, for friends have told me how they had to rejig something or how their experience wasn’t the one reported on but it really makes a difference to understanding when it happens to one, personally. One of the things events managers should be watching for is ambient noise (music and etc) in areas where there will be events. One of the things those of us attending events need to watch for (listen for!) are effects from this on people who can’t raise their voice above them. This is important and I needed the reminder.

My workshop went well. We had to shut the door to keep out the music and hall noise that were a problem in the launch zone, but we had a door to shut, so we were fine. My participants were bright and thoughtful and are now rethinking the big stuff, which is my perfect outcome.

And these last few days I’ve been thinking of what ‘Own Voices’ means in everyday terms. This fits in with my thoughts a few blog posts ago. If we don’t let people communicate their culture their way (if we offer to do so for them rather than clearing a path) we’re claiming hierarchical superiority on the subject. This came into the workshop a little, but mostly is coming into my life as I find out how various of us do the everyday in Australia and what it means to belong to this group or the other.

How to avoid me at Conflux

Conflux this year is easy. There’s a day and a half you can enjoy without me being near. That’s relief, because this warning is late because I have 7 types of food to bring for tasting tomorrow afternoon and I had to finish them first. My hands are stained green and red and all of the food has tested edible.

10 am I’m running a two hour workshop on Questions of Culture (enrolments are open right up to the last minute, so sleep in or go to a panel – you’ll be fine). Let me give you the official description of what you’ll be avoiding:
“This workshop provides a practical approach for writers in recognising how they use their own culture in their writing, especially in novels, and how to recognise stereotypes. Participants will develop tools to open doors to new ways of thinking, to looking at their own work from new perspectives and to think and research in new directions. It is based on Gillian’s own extensive academic research and writing on these subjects. Rather than talking academic shop, however, Gillian will cover what writers can do with their writing, in their genres and with their own cultural background informing their work.”

1.30-2 pm The program says there’s a book launch, but actually there’s a celebration. There are seven types of food, including feminist biscuits (from Wizardry), teengoth biscuits and homemade gingerbread (from Time of the Ghosts) and some experimental food to show you what is to come, since it’s for a novel I’ve not yet written. Oh, and there’s challah.
I’ve promised a reading and to answer questions, but this is me in celebration mode, so of course it’s about the food. And the door prizes. Over a dozen of them. Some great and some silly. Because I felt like it. It’s been a very tough couple of years with some amazing things happening and I have paper copies of Wizardry for sale and… it’s time to stop and smell the gingerbread. (You may want to BYO drinks – one of the bottles of wine I was going to serve is now a door prize for the celebration and the rest are door prizes for Monday.)

And the rest of Friday there’s no avoidance, because I go home to be virtuous and very Jewish.

You don’t have to avoid me on Saturday because I’m being virtuous and very Jewish.

3.30 pm I’m joining the Fairy Tale Ring for an hour. They’re a great group who have much knowledge and some very good tellers of tales, so be thankful I can’t be there for the second half. This means even if you’re avoiding me, you can go.

4.30 pm I’m on a panel about “Magical practices beyond the fairy tale” It asks how fairy tales have borrowed from real-world magic systems? Me, I’m wondering if I get to talk about gematria. We’ll see.

6 pm GUFF Auction – with much good stuff, some of which I have in a bag right now. A couple of us have been collecting material to raise money for the fan fund and some of this stuff is amazing and… you won’t want to miss it. Just pretend I’m not there.

10 am Meet Book View Café, meet Irene Radford via Skype, and meet me (except you already know me). We have bunches to talk about, including books and writers, of course. We have giveaways. Amazingly cool ones. Plus a couple of bottle of wine and a mug for those who look as if they need just a bit more.

1.30 pm Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up
Look at the harmony in my programming! I start with one aspect of the subject and end on another aspect. Anyone would think I’m researching stuff like this as part of my cultural analyses. This is, of course, because I am. I will talk about my own writing if people ask. To ask, though, you’ll have to give up on avoiding me.

Sad note: I made a terrible error when buying chocolate and we have sweets instead. To make up for this, we have enough sugar to send a spaceship into low orbit. Ask me for a sugar hit anytime you need one. The best ones, will, of course, be at my workshop and celebration on Friday. I’m only bringing the more common ones on Sunday and Monday.

I need help thinking…

I’m world building the impending novel with a protagonist who has chronic illness, and life (and my own illnesses) intervened. I wanted to do this through looking at technical analyses, but it’s not going to be possible. So I sat down and thought “What’s the impact of these elements of the world? How precisely am I going to configure them into the novel?” And I’ve come up with a different approach.

Instead of doing it as book research, then, I’m going to ask a few questions and if anyone with illnesses wants to answer them, I’d be grateful.

The first: what shortcuts and cheats do you have with food for those days on which you and your family wouldn’t eat unless you had a cheat or shortcut? How well does each of them work? Any really big successes, any really glorious failures?

The second: when you have to pick something up, or go to an appointment, or maybe have a dinner party or go to a meeting, what problems have people caused by changing their minds? How did you deal?

PS This is also related to me looking more deeply into how different writers do research. I’m playing in new sandpits. Eep.

Some thoughts on cultural exclusion

Right now, the results of my research are forcing me to reassess the world around me. It’s giving remarkably clear indications of how perfectly nice and thoughtful people help set up a complex culture in which bigots can source their hate. Now that I know a bit more about where it comes from, I need to take a pause in my research and digest it.

I’ve written a summary of key aspects of my latest findings for those who want, and that summary has tentatively been accepted for publication. Watch social media, for I will announce it when it emerges. Beyond those findings, the project might have to wait for years. This post is a bit about the project and a bit about why it’s delayed. And how I’m living the life… but not in the way anyone expected.

Quite simply, if I get the right kind of job then I can do the full academic shebang and hit the subject hard and sort it out. I know what I’m doing and how to turn it into a book. If I don’t get the right kind of job, then slow and gentle is all I can manage, with occasional reports like this one and very occasional conference papers. I’ll be able to teach from it, and each course will be exciting and amazingly useful. That’s all, though. No book. Very few articles.

For those who have seen my work so far and have said “But this is important”, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that kind of research in my current situation. Income matters. At the very least, some of my results will appear in my fiction, for my fiction continues without money. More slowly than if I had money, but it continues.

This knowledge is based on experience. Putting other peoples’ intellectual wishes first has not helped me get enough money to live on, so I now put my own needs first in my big life decisions.

There’s another reason for putting my own needs first in those big life decisions. My research has pointed to a bunch of narratives that set up society to exclude perfectly good people and to nurture bigots. I’m right now observing how it hits the disabled and the cultural and religious minority and gender minorities. I’ve now realised how much my own life in Canberra is affected by this.

It’s complicated, but there are two main outcomes.

The first is that many Canberrans exclude me by making decisions for me regarding what activities they expect from me in my life. Some of the reasons are probably excellent. I don’t know. I don’t know what those reasons are. I am to them sufficiently lower in status to not need an explanation or consultation.

The second is related. One of the most annoying aspects of being minority right now is that earned status is difficult to retain unless one is the token representative of that minority. So in Canberra (but certainly not in all other places) I often have to negotiate work as if I were new to the workforce. And I’m one of the lucky people in my lack of seniority, for who else at my level of the hierarchy has two PhDs and whose short list of publications is four pages long? (there is no long list – I dumped it when my short non-fiction hit the 500 mark, which was while ago) And I have friends, who help. And patrons. And I’ve managed to get to several conferences this year, despite living on around $20,000 annually.

Usually these two factors lead to both exclusion and silencing. I keep pointing out that other people who are excluded are silenced more effectively. I can be left off this list or that, but I still get invitations to write and I still have things to say. This is one of my privileges. (and now I’ve used loads of current jargon – such virtue!)

Taking things back to my research for a moment, I’m talking about these issues today because I found a gap in my knowing. I need to find out if that same gap is present elsewhere, especially in my interpretation of how wider culture affects story. I need to look at who is allowed in a group and who isn’t in novels and other long stories.

I noticed something interesting in The 100 today. Skin colour counts in US tales. This isn’t new. This isn’t what I noticed. What I noticed is that focussing on US definitions of racism and silencing and exclusion to assess who got killed under what circumstances made me miss something else.

In our fiction, our central characters have certain types of personalities. It’s as if they come from a range of action or emotional figurines. We take them out of the box and play with them. Those who lack those characteristics are painted figures on the back of the box. They don’t get full lives. Most people define themselves as the figurines when they place themselves in story, people with full lives. What I think I’m seeing is how people are defining those who are merely figures. And I’m seeing the circumstances when I am a figure, left behind when the figurine is brought out to play but considered to be part of the backdrop. I’m not seen as excluded because of my painted role, but indeed, my role is limited to being in the backdrop of the lives of others.

Like all of us, I carry my own prejudices and see other people as active in my life (figurines) or as backdrop (painted figures). My personal need is need to find out who I see as painted figures and give them the dignity of full lives if I’ve excluded them due to prejudices I bear. I also have to accept that a lot of people who were once close to me have, in the change of culture, shifted me to the painted figure category. They want me on the back of their box to illuminate their life, but they don’t want to have dinner with me. I need to accept that some of this is due to prejudice.

As ever, this is a simplification. I needed a quick and dirty overview so that I could start to think how we do what we do.

I wanted to use the circles shutting people out that are described in Joan G Robinson’s When Marnie Was There. Anna was excluded by these invisible circles and, re-reading the book today, they felt very familiar. The subjective feeling of being excluded by invisible circles, however, rests on whatever draws those circles. In my childhood, it was a primary school child whose name I mentioned the other day to my oldest friend. She laughed and remembered, with equal irony.

This is our old way of seeing it. It works when we move from circles to circles and when we see individuals as having to deal with being alone but assign them equal status as human beings. It’s well encoded and very well described. This means that it’s a part of what’s happening culturally right now. A part. Not the whole thing. For culture is changing. We need to encode the changes. That’s what I’m doing here, but it’s a rough sketch. I need something better than toy figurines and the drawing on the box.

This means it’s back to novels. We encode cultures in the nice straightforward framework of the novel. This means that I can find out a lot about what’s happening around me by looking closely at how we depict ourselves and what we write into a story without knowing. The most worrying discovery so far is the one I explained in my Helsinki paper. The Helsinki paper isn’t for publication yet. This isn’t because it’s bad research. It’s because that paper encapsulated the moment when I realised just how big the thing is that I’m doing and how large its ramifications.

I wish I had that fulltime academic job. I wish that researching this didn’t have to come at the end of the month, after everything else. I only do the amount I do because I’m efficient at it. I can’t spend large amounts of time in archives and libraries right now for I simply need to spend that time earning grocery money. That’s my lifestyle problem.

My scholarly problem right now is that, with this strange lifestyle, I’m carrying too much baggage. I can’t do the research partly because I need income, but the lower status lifestyle gets in my intellectual way. The life carries emotions with it. Every time I’m excluded I feel them come to the surface, for I need to explain them.

Those emotions are why I’m not making as much sense as I’d like tonight. I’m in the middle of big things, intellectually, and my life echoes them.

Creating culture

The world faces so many problems right now, and they’re all underpinned by a virtuous normalcy. People who expect that life will be generous and take it for granted, so don’t see or deal with what’s blocking and hurting the lives of others.

I’ve seen this happen in areas where people dedicate their lives to others.

Many spend their lives in service because they really do want to improve the world. Some do it because they want to be seen improving the world, that is, they have an emotional need for attention. I first remarked on this many years ago, when the hardest workers and most innovative people were overlooked for reward, because this person who was shinier deserved it more. ‘Deserved’ meant that every moment of work was trumpeted as special.

Let’s call them Person A. As often work exceptionally hard, but are seldom the original leaders. This trumpeting and reward leads to those who do the work that keeps communities going and who actually change the world being made somewhat silent. Those emotional needs for rewards by As cause a pallor of invisibility around those they work with. I have dealt with many As in my time. Two of my novels, in particular, were affected by As – I had to make an active decision not to centre my writing upon them, for they already had their fame. Judith in The Wizardry of Jewish Women isn’t me, but she’s not an A, either.

Some As have a particular concept of being left-wing and helpful. This concept sets up problems.

Quite a large proportion of As fail to look at the people they’re working with or working to benefit. I’ve heard them described by friends who come from the backgrounds these do-goods are cultivating: they’re people who want the colour or the disability in their life so that they can feel good about themselves.

Not only do they not look, but they are intimidated when one of the people they claim to help turns out to be a strong and independent human being. That’s when we (for I’ve been on the receiving end of this) are regarded as intimidating or even scary. This is because there isn’t a picture in the A’s mind of a human being. The picture is of a stereotype and that stereotype needs help. When the stereotype wants dinner with A as a friend or shows an unexpected side, nothing computes and the new friend is dropped.

This latter group can actually hurt disabled people. In fact, they can hurt anyone, for these As work from stereotypes and people are humans, not cardboard cut-outs. I like to joke that I’m too round to be a cardboard cut-out, but the truth is that these well-meaning people can do more emotional damage than rampant bigots, and they can silence people they regard as allies by simply not paying attention to anything that doesn’t fit their pre-packaged view.

Another side effect of helpful As is when only one person with that particular ‘issue’ or ‘problem’ is included on a list. As don’t see people for who they are or what they can do but because a mental list of doing-good needs to be upheld. An Indigenous person is needed on one list, a woman on another, someone with SE Asian ancestry on a third, or a religious minority on a fourth.

The vast bulk of our actual problems (and here I’m talking as the recipient of racist violence as well as everything else) are ignored unless they fit prior patterns. Mine mostly don’t fit those prior patterns for these people, for one cannot be as strong as I am and still have been ignored or walked over. I am left off many lists, for I am an unsuitable minority.

One of the things I hate most about this is the lack of opportunities these biases create for the victim group. Why do I say ‘victim group’? Whenever people are turned into objects, we become victims. We’re not given the same opportunities as other people, but we’re also turned into “Don’t complain – we’re virtuous and you’re difficult.”

I’ve seen this described in some places as people who assume they’re allies but are actually undermining or hurting others. Pretend allies. Allies who are only there to be seen ie for their own benefit. The thing I’ve noticed over the years is that As don’t often realise what they’re doing. They think they’re allies.

I never used to talk about these things as applying to me. Other people were in more need of help than I was, I thought. That was my bit of A culture.

I’ve added my life up in recent years and discovered that, being intersectional in terms of my lovely minority status means that I have had fewer opportunities than many and very little chance to make a living. I left the public service because I was in a really difficult position due to being Jewish and, without anyone helping me to get out of the position, the best option for me was a redundancy. And in all my other worlds there have been similar incidents. Sometimes it’s because of my cultural and religious background, and sometimes it’s because of the shape of my body (literally), and sometimes it’s because of the fact that I can’t walk quickly and so forth. The fact that I can and do work very long days, and that I get good reviews for my work are not relevant. Every day in some way, I’m treated as a new kid on the block. It was a tough cure for a minor case of being an A.
It’s also something many others have to deal with, especially those who suffer from more than one cultural, mental or physical disadvantage. If society doesn’t treat them as a poster child (which has its own problems) then they’re stuck having to prove who they are, day in and day out. There’s no “They’re experienced.”

This is a very Australian approach to disadvantage. I see it every time I visit Europe. I’m suddenly a person with a lifetime of experience, instead of the one who can be left off lists.

I’ve been working for years on why this kind of thing happens. I’ve also been working on how to avoid it. Alas, my skills on this (which used to be a major source of income for me) have gone the route of “She’s not right for this.” I’m not the token minority allowed to teach these subjects to the public sector anymore.

As racism grows, the shoddy echo of it also grows and life is harder for people on the edges. This is one of the reasons I’ve started talking about it in places like this. Where someone like me (with those two PhDs and so much amazing work experience) is left off lists as not relevant, then people who haven’t had even this much joy in life are stuffed. Mental health problems get added to the list of ills that those dealing with bigotry must endure.

Then there are other issues. I see this in fiction. I can’t distance myself from fiction, being a fiction writer, even though I work very hard at trying to ensure I don’t do these things. My paper at the Woldcon showed one aspect. All my work right now, in fact, shows many aspects, but, of course, I can’t get a job or funding, so this work is likely to take decades. Normally I’d say “I can write novels instead” but in this case, I really need to be able to teach people how to see what they’re doing with their writing and how they’re setting things up for a society that’s not the one they think. It hurts to see this and be unable to help change things.

What the research for my Worldcon paper showed (to put this bluntly) is how perfectly nice writers who hate bigotry can set up a Medieval fantasy world that’s the perfect playing ground for the extreme right. I didn’t describe it as the perfect playing ground for the extreme right, for that’s just an aside ie it wasn’t what I was looking for in the paper. I was looking at the role of religion in those novels.

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday and she said “It’s not actually a problem that fantasy writers leave Judaism out of their Middle Ages” and for some novels it isn’t. But if all of us leave a standard part of a society out of our invented versions, then the world we create (the shared world, the stuff of which other’s dreams are made when they read a half dozen novels) is one with no Jews. Not many women. Not many (close to none) people who are not from very limited backgrounds. I need to finish this study and find out more about the worlds we create. Income would be nice. It comes down to that.

In the meantime, the shape of the shared invented world sets up problems. Firstly, the extremists will say “Look, our world!” and will use that fiction to develop anger against those of us who are still in their universe and who ought not be. Jews. Non-Subservient women. Others. Many others. This is one of the cultural spots that causes othering, in fact.

Secondly, someone will wave a single book that has one of these elements (the written version of Morgan Freeman in a Robin Hood story) and say “You’re wrong!” They will use this single book to shore up their personal status as a do-good person and an ally.

I have quite a few friends whose books are waved around in this manner. Sometimes it’s for the content and sometimes it’s because of their own background. It has to hurt. Their career, comes with a price and it’s a price they’re always aware of: that they’re the token ‘other’ for their particular group. Their writing is still amazing, but they usually appear on lists as this token other rather than as themselves.

I’m in two minds at this point. I want to discuss this in far more detail, and bring all the evidence forth and argue and explain. I also want to whimper “Does this make sense?”

That whimper comes from the place that says “Some people will not read this or try to understand it or, worse, will dismiss themselves as part of it if I don’t demean myself.” Anyone who has told other people I’m worryingly intelligent has helped cause the need for whimpering. If I’m intimidatingly bright and you’ve shoved me away from opportunity or basic income because of that, then you’ve helped set up a situation where the only way I’m comfortable talking is by being even more intimidatingly bright or by atoning for my existence.

Othering causes some people to live a life of perpetual apologies.

This is a form of silencing. And I’m fed up to here (making a late 1930s German joke about the height of rubbish in a bigoted environment) with subtle silencing. It’s the acceptance of all this garbage that’s got us into such a mess. We hurt people and then we say “But we’re not the problem.”

My life is an ongoing revision. I know I’ve got biases, for biases come from deep cultural places. I address them every single day. It’s the big reason I can’t stop doing what I do. That’s my share of the hard work.

What really scares me right now is that people seldom question themselves like this when they live in places of greater comfort, with income and health and sufficient majority status so that they don’t have to face this garbage personally. They patter at the edges. They take from others and they tokenise others and they say “Aren’t I good?” They turn themselves into As.

If you’re a writer or a critic I can tell you precisely how good you are – this is part of what my research is about. And I can say upfront that most of us are doing far more damage than we think. We’re creating a cultural cradle for exactly the parts of society that our fine words claim to hate. I’m not, in my writing, but I’m part of the problem because I am not visible as a writer. Being a minority means this – we have smaller sales unless we’re a token, and bookshops think “I dunno – let’s follow the mainstream.” Every time I walk through a bookshop, I see this problem. Every time I hear a writer talk about their work, I see this problem. Every time I hear an editor talk about what they’re looking for in fiction, I see this problem.

Writers and artists decide the kind of world we live in and we help to create it. So do organisers and critics and academics. Powers of force. Powers for hope. Each and every one of us should be questioning rather than accepting. Being an A is comfortable, but it hurts other people.

SEA Writers

Some of my favourite writers live in South East Asia. Most of them aren’t as well-known as they should be. I asked Joyce Chng, a Singaporean writer and a friend, if she could help. This gives you somewhere to start. Then you can move on to Victor Ocampo’s lists (to which Joyce gives a link), and keep reading. She says:

Southeast Asia is also home to a small group of established and up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers. Believe it or not, we are also writing science fiction for a while now. This is a short list of writers who are either currently residents of the said countries or living in the West.

Joyce Chng/J. Damask
J.Y. Yang
Sonny Liew
Isa Kamari

Zen Cho
Nin Harris
Eeleen Lee

Eve Shi
Ernie Kurniawan

S. P. Somtow

Aliette de Bodard
Nghi Vo
Hoa Pham

Victor Ocampo has a more detailed list on his website.

The Wizardry of Jewish Women returns!

Today I’m welcoming the new edition of The Wizardry of Jewish Women.

With this new edition, I’ve also been welcomed into Book View Café, which is full of some of my favourite authors. This means I’ve had the very real honour of learning how some of the best writers round think about novels, by seeing them work on mine. As each stage happened, the people around me heard my stunned “Do you know who’s been emailing me?”

It’s not only wonderful because I’m meeting (online) some of the best writers in the business and I’m working with them (not only on my book – I get to work on many things!) I’m learning so very much. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I was right a few years ago when I noted that the really good writers with careers that last all have one thing in common: they’re amazing at learning. My first few months has been an apprenticeship, and I am learning from people who are themselves wonderful at learning.

I wrote a long post about this and about other matters. I read it back to myself and laughed. I am a melted puddle of happiness at being in Book View Café, and everything I said showed it. It didn’t, however, make much sense. Me, myself, I’m not at the stage of learning where everything makes sense yet. Some things are clear.

Finally, for instance, I understand the difference between typesetting ebooks and paper and will format my manuscripts somewhat differently to make it easier to do both from the one manuscript. The thing about being involved at the publishing level is one can see where a very ordinary decision (or, in many cases, a formatting problem caused by the word processing program) can cause great angst to the typesetter and can make a manuscript messy for readers unless the problems are worked through.

Other things are still to come. I have a long learning curve for marketing, for Australia really doesn’t teach that side of things at all well. It may be one of the reasons some of our best authors aren’t our best-known authors.

The other novels in my backlist will come out in due course. In the interim, I will work on other writers’ books, and I will write blogposts, and I will do a bunch of other things.

One of the other things is offer up stories if an anthology is coming out. The first story I offered was accepted, which would’ve made my year if Book View Café itself hadn’t already done that. It’ll be published in a few days as part of Mindy Klasky’s anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted. I’ve a t-shirt for that, which I’ll wear in Helsinki at Worldcon. You can read more about the anthology (and what led to it, and maybe get some insights into someone else’s view of working in Book View Café) in Mindy’s own words.

So it’s not one book out – it’s two. And a whole new part of my life has begun. Watch this space, for I’m certain it will be interesting.

On Peeling Oranges

In The Wizardry of Jewish Women, one family peels oranges with a fork. Chaz Brenchley asked me how this was done.

I began peeling oranges this way when I was a teenager. It was partly for the cooking possibilities and partly for the clean fingernails and partly because it’s wonderful as a party trick.

Someone showed me it as a way of creating bowls from the skin of the fruit. Perfect for fruit jelly and ice cream and putting back together and into the fruit bowl so that someone grabs at a fruit and finds a mere shell. Not that I would do something that wicked. Not past my teen years, anyhow.

Photo and orange peeling by Gillian Polack

The method is really straightforward. You use a single tine (or prong, if you’d rather call it a prong) to cut just below the skin, halfway between the two ends. You want to cut through the pith, but not enter the flesh at all. It should be a perfect circle and meet itself when you finish.

Photo and orange peeling by Gillian Polack

Then you turn the fork upside down and use the other end as a lever. Enter through the cut you just made and gently push it further and further around the orange, just under the skin.

Photo and orange peeling by Gillian Polack

When you’ve liberated the orange from the skin, it will just come off.

Photo and orange peeling by Gillian Polack

On writing what I know, or, “How do I know things? Let me count the ways.”

This week is a little busy. By Monday morning, I need to have finished all the non-fiction (articles, essays and two conference papers) due until 10 September. That’s over twenty thousand words. I’m part way through and on a roll and all I have to do is work steadily and somewhat obsessively and I’ll make my deadlines. I should be focussed and thinking only of these things.

Of course, this morning I woke up with a thought that was entirely unrelated. It’s not unrelated to my work, just unrelated to any of my deadlines.

A lot of my readers, when the discover my fiction, tell me I’m writing about my own life and that I’m my characters. I’ve been trying to work out precisely why for ages. This morning I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep because I had a sudden realisation of one of the reasons. I don’t know why it was so important to me when really, I needed to sleep, but it was and so I finished thinking it through.

Since I was a child, I’ve had fairly esoteric interests. Also since I was a child, I’ve had family and friends I’ve loved very much who didn’t share those interests. I used to watch Countdown every single week purely so that I could talk with understanding and appreciation to two people close to me about things they loved. Popular music was their love of all things, so I watched the TV show and listened to their favourite tunes whenever they asked me to and I admired their posters. I never went to a live pop concert. Not once.

My live concerts were all classical music, the more ancient or the more Impressionist the better. In my early and mid-teens my favourite singers were Alfred Deller and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and my favourite composers were Mussorgsky and Debussy. In my late teens, I added opera to my personal mix. Yet I’d listen to Bay City Rollers and to ABBA for the sake of those close to me, and not just listen, but learn how they loved them and appreciate the music and the musicians for their sake. I had to actually appreciate them, because otherwise I was doing them an injustice.

Only some of those close to me did the same back. It was years before I had a friend to go to plays and concerts with me, so once a week I’d take a tram and find music for myself. I’d play records and tapes of my music when my family was out or allowed it, but it wasn’t to their taste, so I didn’t always have that opportunity. Living in a big family, one learns to find private time when one’s tastes aren’t part of the shared zone. One learns about what’s appropriate to share. The shared zone included quite a bit of classical music, so this wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I come from a very musical family. My shared time, however, wasn’t for my music, it was for what we all enjoyed or what other people enjoyed.
This has been a totally brilliant background for character development. I don’t just giving my characters interests to tick ‘passion for such-and-such’ off a list, I take the interest on board, deeply, the way I used to take the interests of those close to me on board. My childhood gave me the tools to do this.

However, no matter how real the love or hate of a particular hobby or job looks to my readers, they don’t necessarily reflect my life. Like all writers, I draw on what I need from the world around me, and the world around me is bigger than I am. Thanks to those I’ve loved over the years, I have the tools to interpret some of this bigger world and place it into my fiction as part of my characters’ lives in a very personal and intimate way.

In the opposite direction, a couple of readers of The Wizardry of Jewish Women have commented on the non-magic events for missing this intimate feel of reality. I don’t know which events they’re talking about, but the most distant-feeling of the events in that story actually happened to me. I depicted them as if they were slightly unreal, on purpose, to create the outside world as something that didn’t fit.

This, again, I learned from my childhood and watching Countdown every week so that I could talk to those I loved about the music they loved. My writing comes from my life experience, for that life experience has given me tools for bringing things to life even when they’re well outside my own experiences or making reality feel unreal.

I teach these tools now, when writing students need or want them. But that’s a different story, for another day.

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