“This is my chosen fast: to loosen all the bonds that bind men unfairly, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.”
“This is my chosen fast: to loosen all the bonds that bind men unfairly, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke.”
Due to circumstances this blog has mostly been on hiatus for the last year, and I want to make official that it will remain on hiatus until October, at which time I hope to start blogging regularly again in anticipation of my rather busy release schedule in 2015.
I will be attending Loncon 3 (London Worldcon) from 14 – 18 August. I’ve posted my programming schedule HERE. This is going to be a huge convention with tons of things going on.
I will be giving out postcards of my forthcoming Tachyon collection, with its fabulous Julie Dillon cover. (If you come to my reading on Monday, I’ll have postcards signed by Dillon herself.) I will also have copies of The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal, a short story with illustrations by Julie Dillon, for sale at my signing, and on me at other times.
I will be one of the Guests of Honor at Fantasycon 2014, 5 – 7 September in York, UK. It’s a small, informal con with lots of chance to talk and meet people, and I encourage you to attend if you can. I’m hoping I’ll get to do some programming on world building!
If you attend either or both conventions, please do introduce yourself. I go to cons to meet readers (and friends and colleagues) and I am there to be available to talk, sign, and wax eloquent (if the opportunity arises).
As I said above, I hope to resume regular blogging in October. If all goes as planned I will also have a newsletter sign up soon, for an occasional newsletter that will mostly announce news and publication information, with a few extras thrown in to sweeten the deal. At some point in the fall my web site will have a new look, although I’ll make no official announcement; it will just switch over when it’s ready to go.
Melanie has asked me to post the following, received from her via email.
Yes, I will write Captal’s Tower. I’m very sorry it’s taken so long. My sincere thanks to all of you who have been so patient. I’m currently writing the fifth book in the “Glass Thorns” series, and after that my plan is to get to work on Captal’s Tower. If anything about that plan changes, I’ll post on my website (www.melanierawn.com).
Loncon 3 (London Worldcon) takes place 14 – 18 August 2014.
My Philosophy of Con-going: I attend conventions specifically to meet readers (and to see friends), so don’t be shy: Introduce yourself.
I am scheduled for a Signing on Friday (see below), but for signing books/etc also please feel free to come to my Reading, sign up for my Kaffeeklatsch, or track me down after a panel (except when I have back to back events I will try to leave time open post-panel) because I can talk or sign then too
I will also be at Fantasycon 2014, 5-7 September, in York, England, a small, informal convention where you definitely will be able to find me easily and the venue won’t be seething with masses of people as Loncon will.
LONCON: MY SCHEDULE
Signing: Kate Elliott
Friday 12:00 – 13:30, Autographing Space (ExCel)
I will have postcards with the cover of my forthcoming short story collection (Tachyon Press) featuring the truly fabulous Julie Dillon illustration from a scene in Cold Steel.
Friday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 11 (ExCeL)
Mary Anne Mohanraj (M), Tobias Buckell, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Fantasy world-building sometimes comes under fire for its pedantic attention to detail at the expense of pacing or prose style. Do descriptive passages clog up the narrative needlessly, when reader imagination should be filling in the gaps? Where does that leave the landscapes and cultures that are less well represented in the Western genre: can world-building be a tool in subverting reader expectations that would otherwise default to pseudo-medieval Euro-esque? If fantasy is about defamiliarising the familiar, how important is material culture – buildings, furnishings, tools, the organisation of social and commercial space – in creating a fantasy world?
Friday 20:00 – 21:00, Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL)
Kate Heartfield (M), Kate Elliott, Jed Hartman, Julia Rios, JY Yang
The “Bechdel test” for female representation in films is now widely known. To pass it a film should contain two named female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. In recent years, similar tests have been proposed for other under-represented groups, including the Mako Mori test for characters of colour, and the Russo test for queer characters. What are the strengths and weaknesses of such tests? How do they affect our viewing choices? And what does the popularity of such tests say about how popular media are being received and discussed?
Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL)
Kate Elliott (M), Nic Clarke, Edward James, Kari Sperring, Jenny Blackford
‘Realism’ has become a buzzword for contemporary genre fantasy, but most medievalesque world-building still barely scratches the surface of the reality. One in three marriages in 14th-century Cairo ended in divorce; English towns were brimming with migrants, including people of colour; women fought on the battlefields of the Crusades; and cities across the world were awash with lurid pageantry that would make modern audiences blush. The panel will discuss aspects of medieval and early-modern life that were more complex than our fiction imagines, and ways of making our invented worlds as diverse and exciting as our history.
Saturday 15:00 – 16:30, Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL)
Patrick Rothfuss, Kate Elliott, Michelle Sagara, Gail Carriger
Gail Carriger, Kate Elliott, Pat Rothfuss and Michelle Sagara West play Gloom for your delight and delectation! Gloom is a deeply inauspicious card game in which players strive to kill their horrid, horrid families in as gristly and grotty ways possible, whilst trying to keep the families of the other player alive. Will they be devoured by weasels or simply perturbed by pudding? Come along and find out…
Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)
Marieke Nijkamp (M), Kate Elliott, John Hornor Jacobs, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Mahvesh Murad
From Earthsea to Noughts and Crosses, The Summer Prince to Akata Witch, children and teens need to see books with characters that represent the diverse world they live in, whether they are dystopian romance or fantasy adventure. Organisations like We Need Diverse Books are helping to promote diversity in children’s literature, but what actions can we take – as readers, writers, publishers, and book-buyers – to help them in their goals? And who are the great authors of the past few years we should be catching up on?
Sunday 14:00 – 15:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)
Wesley Chu, Kate Elliott
(This is a small group meeting. You sign up in advance and the number of places are limited.)
Monday 11:00 – 11:30, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)
Kate Elliott (I will have a few special postcards (see above) signed by Julie Dillon to give away at this event.
Monday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)
Tim Kershaw (M), Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, Kari Sperring
Robin Hobb has influenced a generation of epic fantasists with her unique voice, and a willingness to avoid easy solutions even if that sometimes means letting bad things happen to good characters. While Hobb’s work is dark at times, her famous assassin, FitzChivalry, is almost a kitten compared to the hooded cold blooded killers today’s audience seems to crave. Has the fantasy market fundamentally changed in tone and content, or just diversified? How did the field get from there to here? And, finally, where is it headed?
I would like to welcome the fabulous D.B. Jackson (in 2012 he wrote a fine guest post on “the history that isn’t taught”). Today he tackles a rather different topic about tricks of the writing trade.
Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write
by D. B. Jackson
Let me start by saying that I love my job. I get to make up stories for a living. That’s an actual job; I get paid for doing that. It still blows my mind whenever I think of it. I would never dream of complaining about my job in any way.
Except to say that sometimes being a writer kind of sucks. Not a lot, mind you. I mean, I did just say that I love my job, and I even meant it. But there are a few things about it that I love less than others. And there are a VERY few things — one or three or seven — that I love less than I do, say, going to the dentist, or paying parking fines. Writing can be lonely (except for all the voices in my head, which never seem to pipe down). We writers work in isolation most of the time, and that can be difficult; it can also make us a little funny. Not in a ha-ha way, but more in a when-you-see-us-coming-you-really-ought-to-cross-the-street-and-avoid-making-eye-contact way.
The writing profession is not lucrative, at least not for most of us. Sure, there are a relative handful writers who make A LOT of money, and most of us (I’m really not supposed to say this, but you won’t tell, right?) hate those guys. A lot. And while the business end of writing doesn’t make us much money, it does come with more than its share of annoyances. Someday, when you’re at a bar with a writer (we spend a good deal of time in bars) buy him or her a drink and then ask about things like “reserves against returns,” “basket accounting,” and the way publicity dollars are distributed among authors in your typical publishing house. Actually, you might want to buy the author two drinks.
For these, and a variety of other reasons that none of us really understands, writers are pretty idiosyncratic. Or put another way, we’re all just a little weird. And every writer has his or her own habits and rituals that help us get through the work day.
Joking aside, we all do little things that allow us to be more productive, to stay healthy and sane, and to ensure that writing continues to be something we love. And so, here is my list of “Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write.” Enjoy.
1. I keep stuff on my desk — creative talismans of a sort — that help me maintain my focus. The most important item is a small ceramic sculpture of a Storyteller, the legendary figure of the Southwestern Pueblo cultures. I bought it in Acoma, New Mexico, in 1994 from a young girl whose mother was selling pot and bowls. At the time, my career was just starting and I didn’t know if I would make it as a professional writer. This Storyteller has been with me ever since. I can’t look at it without smiling and feeling fortunate to be a author.
2. Every book I have ever written has a bird of prey in it. Why? Well, I’m an avid birdwatcher and I love hawks and owls. And birds of prey figure prominently in my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle (written as David B. Coe). It is another way of reminding myself that I’m here; I made it to where I want to be, and I should never, ever take for granted whatever success I’ve enjoyed. So, for whatever reason, I always put a raptor or owl in my books. Look for them — you’ll find them.
3. Lots of authors listen to music when they write. Lots don’t. I do, but only certain kinds — either bluegrass or jazz. Always instrumental. I find that the improvisational quality of the music actually feeds my creativity.
4. Every weekday, before I sit down to work, I spend an hour at the gym working out. For most of my day I am pretty sedentary. That workout in the morning makes me feel better, helps me look better, and keeps me sane. For the same reason, I only allow myself a single snack in the late afternoon. No snacking before lunch, and no snacking after lunch before 3:00 pm. I do keep myself hydrated all day, but I don’t use food as a form of procrastination. If I’m not healthy, I can’t be productive.
5. I set concrete, achievable goals for every day I write, and I make myself meet them. I write fairly quickly — not as quickly as some, but at a good enough pace that I can generally write a book of 100,000 words in about three months. I didn’t always write that quickly — when I began, I wrote about 1000 words (or 4 double-spaced pages) per day. My pace today is about 2500 words per day (10 pages). But the actual number of words is not what’s important. The key is finding a pace that works for you, that allows you to get your work done at a good clip, but that doesn’t set you up for failure each day by demanding too much.
6. Another of my desktop talismans is a horoscope that was published while I was writing my first book. Essentially the horoscope said that I should pursue my passion and dreams, and that I should ignore those who don’t think I can be successful. That’s pretty good advice, and having that horoscope on my desk ensures that I don’t forget it.
7. I write full time. I’m very lucky that way — it’s my only job. And I treat it like a job. I work Monday through Friday — I do relatively little work on weekends. And I also work regular hours — I usually knock off from work in the late afternoon (unless I haven’t met my word count goal for the day). My point is that I reserve time for myself, for my kids, for my wife. If I didn’t, I would have burned out long ago.
8. I keep moving forward. Sometimes I will be working on a scene and I’ll realize that there are things that need fixing in earlier chapters. But I do not go back and fix them then; instead I make a note in an “Edits” file and I keep moving forward. For me, momentum is crucial. As soon as I stop to revise, I lose my rhythm and energy and my work in progress begins to languish. Make notes and keep moving forward. That’s what works for me.
9. I always — ALWAYS — write with a dictionary and a thesaurus by my side. It’s not that I use a thesaurus incessantly to come up with new, novel, innovative, fresh words. (See what I did there?) But sometimes I’m stuck for a word. Sometimes I want to know the precise meaning of the word I intend to use. Sometimes I need to know when the word I’m considering entered the language. Between the dictionary and the thesaurus I can usually find the information I need.
10. Sometimes I don’t write. Sometimes I take a few hours off to hike or birdwatch or take my camera out and shoot some pictures. Sometimes I take my guitar out and play some music. I can’t write well if I’m not fresh, and I can’t stay fresh if I don’t do things that I love to do.
So there’s my list. Do you have one, too? What does yours look like?
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, will be released in hardcover on July 8. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
Please join Justine Larbalestier and myself today, and any day, in discussing women’s bestselling fiction from the 20th century, our ongoing 2014 project.
THE STREET tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.
As always, this post is strung together from our email exchanges.
JL: I’m finding The Street extraordinary. After really struggling to get into it—that opening—if I were the editor I totally would have cut it. But it’s so depressing and that’s slowed me getting through it. I fear how it ends. I want so much for things to work out for Lutie and her son, Bub but I really don’t think they’re going to.getting through it. I fear how it ends. I want so much for things to work out for her and her kid . . .
KE: I also found The Street extraordinary, with powerful writing and stark, effective characterization but OMG SO DEPRESSING. And yet that it is hard to read is the whole point. Oh, and I disagree with you about the opening. It drew me in as it set the stage.
JL: Usually I avoid depressing books. The Street is the most matter of fact writing about sexual harassment and sexual predation I’ve read from that period. I was really stunned by it. I see people tweeting similar things every day. But Petry was writing this in the 1940s. I wanted to hug her. Her book is such a refreshing change from the whiter-than-white books we’ve been reading to see race not just discussed but there on every single page.
It’s also the most explicitly angry of the novels we’ve read. Such rage. Such justified rage. What I love though is that the reader understands even the vilest characters, like the nightclub dude, Boots Smith, and the Supe and the madame, Mrs Hedges. The most terrifying, vile presence for me was the omnipresent white guy, Junto, who was so creepy so awful so powerful. I felt unclean every time he was mentioned. Yet, he was rarely in any scenes, rarely said anything yet he controlled everything. He was like the living embodiment of white supremacy.
KE: One of my preconceptions that has been blown apart by reading these novels has been that no one talked about sex in any way shape or form, and I wonder why I had that preconception: Perhaps because of tv and film’s more stringent code? I’m not sure. All the books have dealt with sexual misconduct, sexual taboos, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, and I agree with you that Petry really displays how ugly sexual predation is for the women who are preyed upon and doubly so for Lutie because she is a black woman. It’s relentless. Again, I’m amazed this was published in 1946. But that says much more about my preconceptions than anything else.
JL: Maybe I’ve read more from the period but I was not as surprised as you. However, I found it unbelieveably refreshing to see so many things: misogny, racism, sexism, up front and central on the page. No hinting, no pussy footing around, The Street made me realise what had been driving me crazy about the previous books we’ve read for this bookclub. Those white women are so blind to their own oppression and to the way they oppress others.
KE: Yes — it’s so stark and right there on the page. What is most striking to me is how it shows up the other three books we’ve so far read as . . . I don’t know . . . as glib. I love Valley of the Dolls, but somehow all the difficult issues get coated in a sheen of breathless entertainment. Petry never goes for that; she doesn’t see people’s misery and tragedy as entertainment. She makes the reader look at the devastation racism and sexism wreak in people’s lives. There’s nothing actually “entertaining” about it.
JL: Yes, The Street wasn’t entertaining. It made me realise how rarely I read books like this. I veer away from unrelenting, painful reads.
KE: Yes, me too. Then I felt ashamed for veering. In all honesty when I read about unrelenting and painful things I read non-fiction. Somehow in fiction — perhaps because the writer is really drawing you in emotionally using (perhaps) different techniques from non fiction — it gets so very raw, and Petry really really makes this raw. She does not let the reader look away or gloss over anything.
JL: You’re so right about non-fiction. This kind of bleakness, of genuine dystopia, is, for me, more what I read in non-fiction and mostly avoid in fiction. It’s not about happy/not happy ending. Pretty much none of the books we’ve read have had happy endings. But none of them have been so grim and unrelenting as this book. As you say, they’ve all been shiny and safe, by which I mean not too confronting.
Implicit in everything we’re saying is that our lives are not this bleak. Reading The Street sometimes I felt like a voyeur, like I shouldn’t be reading this book. It was not intended for me. Whereas all the other books we’ve been reading are squarely aimed at white middle-class women like myself.
I can’t imagine what it would have felt like for an African-American woman to be reading it when it came out in the late 40s. I’ve been poking around online trying to find out more about the reception at the time and not turning up much. But it must have been tremendous for it to have sold more than a million copies and for The Street to still be in print today.
I’m not going to lie, this book made me weep on several occasions, and the ending is absolutely devastating. It’s been days now since I finished and I still can’t bring myself to pick up another novel.
KE: Yes, to all this. I should also say that the fact I never read this novel or heard of it until this year says everything about how literature written by African-Americans has been placed into a separate category rather than being part of American Literature where it belongs because it IS fully part of the American experience that everyone should know.
As I was reading–and it is a difficult, emotionally harrowing read–I would sometimes reflect on conversations within SFF about “grimdark” and realism, and I can’t help but compare the glib violence of supposed grimdark realism with The Street, which is as real as it gets.
The way Petry peels away Lutie’s efforts to build a decent life for herself, the slow steady way the story erodes her hope, is devastating. I keep coming back to that scene where a man is lying dead on the sidewalk (and the detail Petry goes into just describing his shoes and what his shoes say about his life!) and the police bring a girl forward to identify him (the “burly Negro” episode where the journalist describes a starvingly thin man as a “burly Negro” in his story).
Lutie didn’t look at the man’s face. Instead she looked at the girl and she saw something–some emotion that she couldn’t name–flicker in the girl’s face. It was as thought for a fraction of a second something–hate or sorrow or surprise–had moved inside her and been reflected on her face. As quickly as it came, it was gone and it was replaced by a look of resignation, or complete acceptance. It was an expression that said the girl hoped for no more than this from life because other things that had happened to her had paved the way so that she had lost the ability to protest against anything–even death suddenly like this in the spring.
This is what good writing does: it encapsulate truth in a paragraph. This entire novel is the paving of that way for Lutie.
JL: Yes. That’s a perfect moment of oh so many in this book. Petry is a great writer. And a stark reminder to those of who are not African American that what happened to Trayvon Martin, had happened many, many times before: a slight black boy turned into a burly monster by the lies of the police and the media and the result is that a white man gets away with murder.
Having recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant essay on reparations it’s really not hard to see all of that playing out in Petry’s brilliant book.
KE: For me it was Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, about the migration of African Americans from the South to the North across the 20th century, that really brought it home, and I agree that Petry unflinchingly describes the systemic injustice.
JL: Yes, and Wilkerson’s book was a huge influence on Coates. I couldn’t help thinking also about Slavery By Another Name. Basically about everything I’ve ever read about systemic racism in the USA after the abolition of slavery.
KE: Yes, Slavery By Another Name is another important example, and I would recommend everyone read these books.
KE: Petry spends time in many different heads, not just Lutie. We see Bub, the Super, Min, and so on, and even with an awful man like the Supe I feel she genuinely does him justice so you can see the humanity in him even as you hate him. His thought processes make sense, and they feel real. She reaches out so that the reader can see more fully “the street” that Lutie has to walk down.
JL: Yes, as I said above, she lets us into all of them so we can’t just dismiss them as evil. Because everything that happens to Lutie is not merely about meeting the wrong people, making wrong decisions, it’s about systemic racism, misogyny and sexism and the way the not only destroy her but also everyone around her.
KE: Can we discuss Lutie herself? So heartbreaking, this story. All she wants is to make a decent, independent life. She is a decent, smart, hard-working person. She does everything right but it is denied to her; it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing she could have done to make it work. Her sense of self and her desire to live with dignity are continually assaulted, and yet she works so hard to maintain them.
This is also a classic explication of intersectionality. She gets all the prejudice against being black, all the prejudice against being a woman, and then it is rolled together because she is a black woman and I really felt there was no harbor for her, no place where she could find protection or immunity, as it were.
JL: Lutie also gets the whole shit storm of being a gorgeous black woman, which makes her problems in some ways even worse because she does not have Min’s refuge of invisibility. It marks her as someone Junto wants to turn into a high-earning prostitute who will make him a lot of money but only after he’s had her himself.
After the other bestselling novels we’ve read The Street is like having a bucket of ice cold water thrown in your face. I’d like to make everyone read it. Especially those who believe that racism ended in the USA after 1865.
KE: Or after The Civil Rights Movement. Indeed.
Thank you for joining us, and PLEASE continue the discussion in the comments below.
July’s book: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.
For our next selection we’ll be discussing THE STREET, by Ann Petry, first published in 1946.
On Twitter: USA: 30 June 10 pm ET, 7 pm PT, 4 pm HT
Australia: 1 July noon ET
As per usual I’ll also post our comments here and you are welcome to join the discussion at any time.
Here’s an extremely basic version of how my part in the publishing process works in traditional commercial publishing (not other kinds, like self-publishing, which I don’t have enough expertise to discuss):
I write a book. Maybe I write an entire first draft and then sell it to a publisher or maybe I sell it on proposal and write it after I have a contract. I revise the work some number of times and turn it into my editor.
The editor gives me revision notes, and I revise.
After several revision passes, the manuscript goes to a copy editor who goes over it to make sure there is proper grammar, consistency of usage and nomenclature, and no awkward language, and to check for a character’s eyes changing color from brown to blue and other such random mistakes.
The manuscript gets typeset into the visual form it will have as a book. At this point I get sent first pass page proofs to proof for typos and any final minor line edits. Page proofs for my forthcoming YA fantasy novel arrived this week.
Here is a photo of the title page of COURT OF FIVES, with lovely typography and design.
I have a full month to proof the text. So far the text has been very clean.
Here’s the first page:
On more step closer to publication, which is (alas) still a ways off: Summer 2015, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
I will have more information about the story and publication details in a later post. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled to see my “Little Women meet the Count of Monte Cristo in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” fantasy turning into a book.
I posted this as a sequence of Tweets and wanted to log it here as well.
Finally printed out my 4 single spaced pages of note from 2 hour phone call with my editor. I added these notes to the 20 page edit notes she subsequently emailed me (but which she had already written before she made the phone call).
This is the glamorous writing life, people. An editor who makes you dig and dig and dig is a treasure.
I wrote the bulk of BLACK WOLVES (my new epic fantasy) after my father died last fall because I had to do something. The 1st draft is a mess. In fact, I spent much of the time writing it wondering if I should just dump the whole idea, or dump writing in general. But I couldn’t stop. Stopping would have been like dying. Or like facing grief.
I forced myself through to a 200,000 word first draft because I had to, whether I kept the story or not. Because I knew I couldn’t trust the negativity in my head. I had to get it out regardless of the end result.
When I finally sent it to my editor I didn’t know if she would say, “Um, can we start over?” OR “Okay, let’s dig in.”
She said, “DIG IN.”
Sometimes being told you have work to do is the best gift someone can give you. Because it means the work is worth doing.
Recent discussions in the SFF community reminded me of this post. It is adapted from the introduction I wrote to the 2002 10th anniversary edition of JARAN, published by DAW Books. It was previously posted on Live Journal in July 2011, before this WordPress blog existed. I’ve made a few minor changes.
Science fiction is often defined as a “literature of ideas,” and many famous SF stories can be identified by the idea, or nifty concept, or “what if” speculation that lies at their heart. Is my sf novel JARAN just a rousing adventure story with a romantic element, or is there some kind of science fictional speculation involved?
Glad you asked. Because I’ve discovered that people usually don’t ask. Too often they seem to just assume there isn’t because nothing in the book (if they’ve even read the book) fits the received and accepted definition of a sfnal “idea.”
What if, in a low-tech, chieftain-level pastoral society in which labor remains divided along a (fairly traditional by Western standards) gender line, women had real authority?
Not lip service authority. Not a lot of talk about women being the repository of honor in the home, or the teachers of the next generation, or the keeper of the house in a way that specifically limits them to the house, or the biologically equipped nurturing machines whose scriptural mandate is to be mother and helpmeet, but real authority: “The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine, or judge.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1976)
As authority, that is, held over all members of society and not just over children and social inferiors. And not just some women, those who by birth or accident or exceptionalism have managed to wrest authority for themselves out of a patriarchal society by being “as good as a man,” but all women.
What would such a society look like? How might it function to grant equal dignity to women and men and yet at the same time fit realistically into a broader world and with an understanding of human nature and the needs of survival in a low-tech world with a high mortality rate?
Over the course of envisioning and revising the book, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Am I reinforcing notions of biological determinism by splitting labor along traditional gender lines as the average USA reader knows and expects them to be observed even today but particularly in our view of the past? Yet if I can only write women as “free and powerful” by freeing them from their “traditional” roles, am I not then implicitly agreeing with unchallenged cultural assumptions that devalue women’s labor and women’s experience? How can I mediate between these two extremes?
I don’t have an answer to these questions, although I can say that over time I’ve learned how fluid division of labor by gender is from society to society (as well as how fluid conceptualization of gender itself may be and how easy it is to fall into a binary definition of gender).
In terms of division of labor, for instance, in the jaran I made men the ones who embroider, but of course embroidery is not a universal female occupation; most USAians just tend to think it is.
In any case, in JARAN and the other volumes in the sequence I explore what respect and authority mean and how they might interact through and between genders and, by doing so, shape how the culture of the jaran tribes developed in the past and continues to develop when a disruptive new force begins to alter the social fabric of the tribes.
Yet I didn’t want to create a “matriarchy” in which women rule and men submit–an inverted patriarchy. I wanted to explore the idea of a culture in which all adult roles are truly respected. So I started with an assumption: For women to maintain authority, institutions within the culture have to support that authority.
I made the tribes matrilineal, and in addition borrowed from certain Native American traditions in which the right to hold certain offices and to inherit property follow down the female line.
I also made the jaran matrilocal: Under most circumstances, a new husband goes to live with his wife’s tribe. The locus of power within any given tribe centers on extended families of sisters. A woman’s relationship to her brother is considered to be the most stable female-male relationship, based on a shared mother and upbringing, and within extended families, cousins related through sisters or a sister and brother are considered like siblings (however, this is not true for cousins related through brothers).
In addition, women have possession of the tents and wagons, and they manage and distribute food and labor available to the tribe. As with the Haudenosaunee, jaran etsanas (headwomen) have the power to install or depose male tribal war leaders.
These familial, economic, and political relationships give women a network of support as well as a respect and autonomy that reinforces their authority.
Another aspect I played with was the cultural norms of sexual behavior. The hoary old cliché of male sexual aggression contrasted with female sexual passivity is still with us in American society in a multitude of forms. I chose to make jaran women the sexual initiators: They choose lovers at will when unmarried, and are free to continue to (discreetly) take lovers once they are married. However I gave men the choice in marriage. Although in practice almost all men (at the instigation of or with the assistance of their mothers and sisters) would negotiate with the other family first, it would be possible for a man to marry a woman whom he wanted but who did not want him. This contrasting pattern assured that neither sex had complete power over the other. Even in a strongly patriarchal society that is highly restrictive toward women, women will seek avenues of balance and redress when they can, including underhanded ones. History is full of such examples. I wanted to place mine right out on the table.
I catapult my protagonist into this culture without preparing her for it. Since she comes from a future Earth where the dregs of our patriarchal past still hold some sway over her way of thinking, she often has the opportunity to misinterpret what freedom and authority mean among the jaran.
When I look back at the book now, over two decades later, I can see ways in which my own thinking has changed, things I might have written differently but which reflect the era and attitudes with which I grew up and the ways in which my thinking has changed since then.
Ultimately, looking back, I wish that discussing my speculative ideas behind the jaran society weren’t still timely. To quote sff writer N. K. Jemisin in her excellent post on “The Limitations of Womanhood in Fantasy,” “Here’s the problem with this wholesale rejection of both societally-imposed and self-chosen “typical” women’s behaviors — in the end, it amounts to a rejection of nearly all things feminine. And that’s definitely not good for women.”
That’s the idea I was trying to explore, back then. We’re still struggling with it now.