Books and Stories

A persistent trope among readers and writers on social media is the debate between those who prefer digital reading devices and those who prefer “real” books. In the last few years, devotees of audio books have also waded into the fray. It amuses me how partisans of each type seem convinced that their preferred format really is the best as they seek to convert or disparage the rest.

The question came up in my novel, Shadow of the Hare. The main character, Malia, is a dissident in the Recall movement and adamant in her devotion to the physically printed word. Her preference emerged in childhood:

“I spent hours not only reading but arranging and rearranging my books on the shelves in my bedroom, finding sensual pleas­ure in the feel and smell and weight of them, the hard squaredness of their corners, the colors and images on their covers, the textures of their papers. The occasional, inevitable paper cut was a blood bond.”

She and other partisans of Recall became fearful of how digital media could be too easily revised and manipulated to suit the politics of the moment. In her world, printed books had become a resource hoarded by dissidents.

They may be onto something there.

Nevertheless, I understand that digital books are much more convenient for travelers and may also have some appeal to those advocating for the trees. You don’t have to cut down any trees to produce and access books on Kindle or Apple. People of a certain age also point out the convenience of being able to create their own LARGE PRINT VERSION of whatever book they like.

My latest book, Song of All Songs, features a main character who can’t read. She belongs to a future version of humanity, people who process the world in such a way that strings of figures printed on pages resist translation into anything meaningful. (They have other remarkable capabilities that far outweigh this seeming disability.) There are people in our own time and place who share this characteristic to some extent, of course. Books read aloud definitely appeal to such individuals. Audio books also appeal to people who want to read on the fly, on the run, on the commute, or while they’re doing other things like cooking dinner or cleaning the house.

All three formats have their place. The question of what constitutes a “real” book disappears when we focus on the stories themselves. Real stories can be written down and printed on paper. They can be composed digitally and accessed through cyberspace. They can be told aloud and listened to. Stories can also be acted out in plays and movies. The stories are what matter. However you choose to produce them and consume them is up to you. Just keep enjoying the stories!

 

NOTE: Song of All Songs is currently available as either a paperback or digital book. The process of producing the audio version begins next week!

What They’re Saying

“When anthropologist Donna Dechen Birdwell turns her keen sense of how societies evolved in the past toward imagining a post-apocalyptic future, the result is a thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent thriller.”   — Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer Alternative

Song of All Songs is a beautifully written and richly realized vision of the future, informed by a deep understanding of humanity.” — Christopher Brown, Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas and Failed State

“Song of All Songs is a lovely book. It is sad and hopeful both, and I thought about it long after I read the last page.” –Patrice Sarath, author of The Sisters Mederos and The Unexpected Miss Bennet

Please join me virtually for the official book launch and conversation with Patrice Sarath, 7 p.m., August 28, via Malvern Books and Zoom! You may pre-order a paperback from Malvern Books and an eBook from Amazon

What is the book about?

Long after the apocalypse, Earth has repeopled itself. Twice.

Despised by her mother’s people and demeaned by her absent father’s legacy, Meridia has one friend—Damon, an eccentric photologist. When Damon shows Meridia a stone he discovered in an old photo bag purchased from a vagrant peddler, she is transfixed. There’s a woman, she says, a dancing woman. And a song. Can a rock hold a song? Can a song contain worlds? Oblivious of mounting political turmoil, the two set out to find the old peddler, to find out what he knows about the stone, the woman, and the song. But marauding zealots attack and take Damon captive, leaving Meridia alone. Desolate. Terrified. Yet determined to carry on, to pursue the stone’s extraordinary song, even as it lures her into a journey that will transform her world.

How I Got Here

Today I was looking at this newest piece of fiction I’ve written and I asked myself, “Where did that even come from? How did I get to a place where I would think such a story into existence?” And then I remembered this poem that I wrote back in 2003.

When I look back
And try to see how I’ve come
To where I am today
I recognize a few landmarks
But there is
No path.

I have slipped through the forest
Sans machete
With only
Glimpses of the mountaintop
The slant of the sun
The moon between the branches
For guidance.

I have crossed a few paths
Maybe walked at the edges
Of some fairly well-trodden roads
From time to time.
But it is impossible to tell
Where I’ve come from or
How I’ve gotten here from
Wherever I began.
There is
No path.   (4/18/03)

Get your signed copy of Song of All Songs from Malvern Books and join my book launch on Friday, August 28!

Also available on Kindle!

It’s About Us

I struggle most days, in the midst of this pandemic, to edit my next book, to prepare it for publication, to write the next story after this one. I rarely turn out more than a few hundred words a day and sometimes none at all. I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Why does it matter that I write? Why does it matter that I write this particular story?

For one thing…if I should die of this damn coronavirus thing, I don’t want to leave behind an unfinished manuscript.

But that’s not enough. Why is this story something I want to finish?

What is it about?

It’s about humanity. About all the things that may or may not be “human nature.” About our diversity and how diversity is the bedrock of survival.

It’s about a woman who thinks, because she is biracial, that she is nothing. And then discovers that she is everything.

It’s about people who hate and distrust and misunderstand one another and then end up needing one another to survive.

It’s about us.

I’m ready to launch Song of All Songs on August 28. I’m ready to tell you a story I believe in.

 

 

COVID Dream

I woke up way too early this morning—like 4 a.m.—and although I finally managed to get back to sleep for a while, I dreamed. Here is what I dreamed, along with my expert analysis of what it meant.

  • I dreamed that my bird somehow managed to dismantle her cage from the inside. Well, that’s obvious! Aren’t we all sick of being caged up and ready to bust out?
  • I dreamed that there was a big hole in the floorboards of my house. Representing the opening up of society? Let’s go with that.
  • My cat Mr. Bean was here! But given that he died nearly five years ago, this was obviously a zombie cat and so I’m letting him represent the coronavirus. (Sorry, Mr. Bean.)
  • The bird went through the hole in the floor, where she was caught by the cat. Oh, no! The virus is still out there!
  • I managed to drag cat and bird out of the hole. (Another lockdown??) The bird was okay, though looking sad, bedraggled, and frightened.

And the moral of this story is: Stay in your cage! There are zombies on the loose!

If you have a better explanation of this dream, let me know. Otherwise, I’m sticking with this one!

Experiencing Racism

Somebody on Twitter asked: “Have you ever experienced racism? Tell us your story.”

There are two ways to experience racism: As a victim and as a beneficiary. I have experienced racism as a beneficiary. It’s called “white privilege.”

And the more I observe the victims of racism, the more undeserving I feel of its benefits.

I am no more deserving than my black brothers and sisters of being able to walk (or jog) down the street without being harassed.

I am no more deserving than black Americans to feel only mildly annoyed when a cop pulls me over on the highways or city streets.

I am no more deserving than they are of living in a comfortable home in a “safe” neighborhood.

I am no more deserving than they are of being able to watch birds in a city park without others feeling threatened by my presence.

It’s been said that America will never truly rise to greatness until we undergo the genuine soul-searching and structural realignments demanded by “truth and reconciliation.” This week I’ve seen a lot of people encountering some big truths about America and who we have been (and still are) as a racially divided nation. There’s a lot more to come. And the reconciliation will never come without uncovering all of the shameful truths about our nation’s history and about how I and others like me have benefitted while others suffered.

It’s time.

You might also want to read my previous post, “This is Not a White Country.” Or this broader take on the notion of “Privilege.

1960s Déjà Vu

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

I got up this morning experiencing a sense of déjà vu that sent me looking for my bound volume of all the campus newspapers from my senior year in college—1969-1970. I was editor-in-chief that year, so there’s a lot of me on those pages, from editorial decisions about what got covered and what went on the front page to editorial statements (many, in retrospect, rather outrageous!) about everything that was going on that year.

There was a lot going on. There was a Moratorium declared in opposition to the Vietnam War. On December 2, 1969, there was the infamous draft lottery. We put out a special issue on the environment in March of 1970. There was also the Texas Pop Festival and skinny dippers in Turtle Creek. But I think what prompted my déjà vu was the memory of our black students’ association (yes, we had one at SMU) and the list of demands they drew up and how meticulously we tried to cover them in the student newspaper. We got criticism for that.

The previous year, in May of 1968, I had submitted a term paper in which I cited numerous political theorists and a few black activists. The paper concluded that white America had long since declared war on black Americans and that black people had every right to fight back, including with violence. I quoted extensively from James Baldwin and even included one citation of Stokely Carmichael’s writings.

There had been repeated riots through the 1960s. We may have thought that the Civil Rights Act and school integration and a few other achievements would fix things. More recently, we may have thought that having a black President would fix things.

Nothing has been fixed. The past decade has seen a vicious resurgence of (never dormant) white supremacy with its constant toxic handmaiden, white privilege. And black people and other people of color have had enough. The current pandemic has revealed the deadly extent of existing economic and healthcare inequalities. The murder of George Floyd forced us to see what we haven’t wanted to see: The heritage of slavery and Jim Crow are with us still.

When people time after time are pushed to the brink, when they ask for and then beg for and then demand change and nothing changes, eventually something explodes.

When it’s a gas fire, you don’t just spray water. You turn off the gas. And until we address the very real structural inequalities that exist within our society, we’re going to keep having explosions. Maybe even some big ones.

 

Rabbit! Rabbit!

Did you know I have a monthly newsletter? If you subscribe to my blog, you probably get it already. It comes on or just before the first of each month. I started it last October. It’s called “Rabbit! Rabbit!” because, as explained in the first issue, many people believe that if the first thing you say on the first of the month is “Rabbit! Rabbit!” you will have good luck for the month and nothing would please me more than being able to help all my readers have good luck! The luck may not be working so well at the moment, but I’m going to keep trying!

At the end of this post there are links to all of my newsletters so far, and from this point forward, I will be including each new one somewhere on the blog.

Wishing all of us better luck in May!

Rabbit! Rabbit!

October 2019   November 2019   December 2019 

January 2020   February 2020   March 2020   April 2020   May 2020

 

A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

Pandemic Revisited

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the pandemic that I wrote about in my Recall Chronicles series. I think about how my different characters reacted to it.

One of them denied their symptoms right up until the diagnosis came back. It was just stress, they said. Or the altitude. That was all.

Other characters contemplated the relevance of political action under dire circumstances.

Montagne stared out the window and said nothing, his fists shoved deep into his pockets. When he spoke, his voice was heavy with sadness. “I know,” he said. “It seems like a lot of people are going to die of this disease no matter what else happens. Except maybe for the plutocrats who are rich enough to isolate themselves.”

But what if the plutocrats are a bigger problem than any disease?

Another character finds herself thankfully immune to the virus. And that became another whole set of issues. She and her friend decide to volunteer at the hospital, offering comfort to patients:

There were only a hand­ful of [immune] people who could work without the encumbering suits and hoods and we were issued badges indi­cating our approved status. Most of the other badge-wearers came from the ranks of lower-level workers who tended to sweep­ing, cleaning and trash removal. My heart sank, realiz­ing that in another week or so they’d also be removing bodies. My task was bedside care. I gave people water and helped them with their meals and their palliative medica­tions—analgesics, anti-nausea pills, sleep aids. I held their hands and looked into their faces. They seemed grateful to be able to see mine.

And then there’s the opening to book three (Flight of the Owl), which came from someone trapped in the misery of the ongoing pandemic (you’ve been warned).

September 11, 2126—She takes another deliberate breath and stares at the rigid form, dismayed at how inexorably her friend’s life had leaked out, bit by bit, thinking about how it will feel when the same thing happens to her. And it will hap­pen. If not tomorrow, then the day after.

Breathe.

She struggles against encroaching tears. Breathing is already hard enough. She fills her lungs with the oxygen her broken blood cells refuse to carry. Not moving around helps, not robbing oxygen from failing organs.

Breathe.

She considers opening the door and running away, run­ning until she drops. Out there nothing works anymore. Everything’s broken. Out there smoke hangs in the air, smoke from the fires. Not funeral fires. There were no funerals. She doesn’t open the door. She lies still, next to her dead room­mate while her own life leaks out, bit by bit.

Breathe.

The last time she looked in the mirror, she saw how her youthful face had gone pale and gaunt. The calendar tells her she’s 107 and she searches for 107 years’ worth of memories. She finds a few. In her mind she writes letters to friends and family, the dead and dying.

Breathe.

Dear Maggie – I just want to say how sorry I am that I stole your favorite eyeliner pencil. She hasn’t heard from Maggie in years.

Breathe.

Dear Uncle Bart – Thank you for making me memorize poems. Thank you for Dylan Thomas and ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ I have no rage left.

Breathe.

Dear Jonathan – How I wish you were here to hold my hand. I’ve wished that before but I never told you. I’m remem­bering a poem I wrote in college, one where I longed for a revolution. Everyone called it anachronistic nostalgia but you said it was good. I think about what’s happened and I think it had to be deliberate. I think this is our 22nd-century revolu­tion. I didn’t think it would be like this. Is this victory? If so, whose?

“Long live the revolution,” she whispers.

Love, Kate.

Breathe.