The Journey Continues

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I’m back at my home base in Austin, Texas, after a week on the road and a journey of a couple thousand miles. I traveled on, undaunted by small inconveniences like having some dude in Lebanon (yes, the country of Lebanon) try to use my credit card on the third day of my travels, resulting in the card being cancelled and me being left with only my bank card and cash on hand. Undaunted, as well, by another dude, the one driving the white Lexus, who failed to stop soon enough and plowed into the back of my car exiting off I-30 in Fort Worth.

Never mind those things. It was an amazing trip. There were vast expanses of geologic time strewn out before me, forcing me to imagine ancient seas, volcanic eruptions, eons of uplift and erosion. There were people whose experience and narrative of American history is vastly different from my own, people with gentle manners and firm rules: no photography, no recording. They told me what I needed to know. They expected me to remember it, and I’m sure I will.

My bedtime reading last night delved back into Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the passage where the preacher protagonist reflects on a wartime sermon he never preached. “The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared.”

My own journey through life continues and I remain undaunted by small miseries. Who knows what suffering could have been my lot if I weren’t so fortunate? Happy travels!

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Exploring Hopi Country

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I came to Arizona in search of deeper insight into one of the characters you will meet in Vol. III of the Recall Chronicles. Her name is Dextra and she is a Hopi woman. Since my arrival here on Second Mesa yesterday afternoon, I have held wide-ranging conversations with a half dozen real Hopi women, asking them questions and listening to them muse about what life might be like for a woman in the Hopi world in the 22nd Century. Through them, I’ve come to know Dextra much more fully. I’ll have to rewrite several scenes and conversations, but that’s okay; that was what I hoped would come from this journey.

I don’t want to tell you too much about Dextra. Just know that she’s waiting to meet you in a book called Flight of the Owl. I will, however, share with you a few tidbits of information that came my way today.

  • Some Hopi believe that owls are protectors, while others see them as messengers, possibly of bad news.
  • There is a wild plant on the mesas that bears tiny, tiny green leaves that taste like mint. Only stronger.
  • Dogs are protected beings among the Hopi (which explains why this is the only area on my journey where I’ve seen dogs!). I was told that sometimes Navaho people will drop off litters of puppies at Hopi shops, knowing the dogs will be well cared for.

Have you read Vol. I – Way of the Serpent?

Respect

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As I prepare to set off on a journey to Arizona to contextualize the Hopi character of Dextra Honanie (Recall Chronicles, Vol. III – Flight of the Owl), I must take heed of J.K. Rowling’s current tribulations in Pottermore.

Rowling is in process of attempting to construct a bridge between the world of Harry Potter and “magic in North America”.  Adrienne Keene, in her blog “Native Appropriations”, takes Rowling to task for several transgressions, beginning with the reification of something called “Native Americans”. Keene rightfully points out that this is a broad and diverse cultural category, encompassing as it does Inuit, Apache, Hopi, Iroquois, Navaho, Cherokee, and many other equally distinctive societies.

Rowling also gets into some awkward attempts to intertwine the fictional world of wizardry with some real events in American history. I fully understand the temptation of providing a Potteresque slant on the Salem witch trials, but I’m mystified by Rowling’s statement that the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) was founded in 1693, a full 83 years before the founding of the United States of America itself. Magic, I guess.

One of the most charming features of Rowling’s marvelous world of wizardry has always been its existence as a world apart from specific time and place, a world exemplified – to my mind at least – by Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Trying to link up with history and a named continent full of real people with complex, still vibrant cultures kind of messes with the magic.

My own fictional world in The Recall Chronicles is clearly linked to real places and potentially real times. And that is why I want very much to get my Hopi character right, or at least plausible enough to be acceptable to Hopi readers. I’m looking forward to my adventures in Arizona!

(More musings on fiction, fantasy, and the real world are in the works.)

Way of the Serpent is speculative fiction.

Truth and Fiction

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Although I continue to hold a position as Professor Emerita of Anthropology at my former institution, I stopped being actively engaged in anthropology almost a decade ago. Or did I? The further I get beyond that watershed date called “retirement”, the more easily I see the profound influences of social science on my life as it continues to unfold.

Today I decided I needed to look back on a textbook I used for a class I taught on Neanderthals, in which we studied novels about Neanderthals alongside the scientific treatises. The book I pulled off the shelf is called Fiction & Social Research: By Ice or Fire, edited by Anna Banks and Stephen P. Banks.

The introduction the Bankses wrote for that book struck a deep chord with me and may account at least in part for my eventual turn toward fiction writing. They credit Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer and Milan Kundera for inspiring them “to think about the nature of truth and the place of fact in storytelling, and the relation of truth and facticity to the imagination.”

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Anna and Stephen is that “facts don’t always tell the truth, or a truth worth worrying about, and the truth in a good story – its resonance with our felt experience… – sometimes must use imaginary facts.” From them I learned the concept of “verisimilitude”, the notion that a story can have an unmistakable ring of truth even when the “facts” are entirely made up.

So here’s a big “Thank you!” to a couple of social scientists of great imagination and courage who planted in this social scientist the seeds of a late-blooming desire to write stories – completely made-up stories – that have the ring of truth.

Where Are You From?

"Trying To Blend In" 8 x 10 framed, $300

“Trying To Blend In” 8 x 10 framed, $300

My collegiate study abroad was the summer of 1969 at the University of Graz, Austria. There I met two women – mother and daughter – and when I asked them that time-worn, tedious question “Where are you from?” they looked confused. I believe they were originally from Bulgaria, but due to politics and undisclosed personal matters, they were officially stateless, traveling around Europe on United Nations passports.

“How marvelous!” I thought at the time. “How liberating to not be tethered to one country and one identity, to be free to move about the world unburdened by someone else’s prejudices about your origins!” I didn’t discuss this with the mother and daughter, though now I fervently wish I had.

I’ve developed some new perspective on this question of stateless persons over the years and especially during the past year as I’ve watched political turmoil and violence turning people loose in the world with nowhere to go, nowhere to belong, nowhere to call home. We call them refugees or, more politely, migrants.

The world appears to be increasingly full of such people, the effluent of conflict and economic catastrophe. Just yesterday I read an article about Nepal, where children born of a Nepali mother and a foreign father cannot claim Nepali citizenship except through a difficult and highly uncertain political process. Without their official citizenship certificates these people “cannot vote, open a bank account, sit for many official examinations, register the birth of a child, buy or sell property, get a passport, or even obtain a mobile SIM card.” They are effectively stateless persons.

Instead of loosening the restrictions of social and political participation, we appear to be getting more and more chary about according citizenship and belonging to our fellow human beings. My youthful infatuation with the notion of global citizenship, one planetary society, was naïve. Although we may be annoyed when people ask the question, we all want to be from somewhere that loves us.

Read more from Donna Dechen Birdwell.

Happy Lunar New Year!

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Although I am neither an astrologer nor a prognosticator of any proven reliability, I would like to offer a few observations regarding this Lunar New Year.

The year we are leaving behind is the Year of the Wood Sheep. Sheep, as we know, are gentle animals who move about in herds, becoming easily distressed when left on their own, lost with no sense of direction, crying plaintively. In some eastern cultures, the sheep year is instead a goat year. We also know a thing or two about goats, especially scapegoats. “Wood” or “wooden” are terms often used to convey a sense of thickness, unresponsiveness, lack of intelligence.

The year we are moving into is the Year of the Fire Monkey. Unlike sheep, monkeys are lively, jovial, emotional, unpredictable. In stories, they are often tricksters. As for the fire, well, fire burns wood. Fire is one of the most useful tools ever domesticated by humankind, but also one of the most dangerous.

Based on these thoroughly idiosyncratic observations here is my prediction for the year ahead: things are about to get interesting!

Halfway When?

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I find it intriguing that various cultural calendars choose to mark not just the obvious things – full moons and new moons, equinox and solstice – but also the positions halfway between. In the Tibetan ritual calendar, the half-moon days are equally as important as full moon or new moon and are marked as Guru Rinpoche Day and Dakini Day, with appropriate ceremonies.

In traditional Ireland, the primary named celebrations of the annual round – Samain, Imbolg, Beltaine, and Lughnasa – fell halfway between the solstice and equinox days.

February 2nd is recognized in our country as Groundhog Day, but it has deep connections to Irish Imbolg, “a pastoral festival celebrating the coming into milk of the ewes”. There may also have been some weather divination associated with Imbolg, a possible origin of our Groundhog Day.

I muse over all of this as a reminder that time – as well as the way in which we measure it – is all relative. The protagonist of my next novel – Shadow of the Hare, which will be published later this year – had similar thoughts after she moved out of the city and into a remote rural community:

“As the weeks extended into months, I kind of stopped keeping track of time. It’s all relative anyway, gauging our distance from some event in the past or some planned, imagined future, organizing our activities within the diurnal/nocturnal cycle, across the flow of seasons. (…)

“When I first arrived, I still felt the need to know what time it was, positioning my little digital clock on my table like some deity in a shrine. As summer heated up, I noticed that people would begin to say ‘good afternoon’ well before my clock declared midday. Similarly, on an overcast day, they might continue to offer ‘good morning’ long past noon. I soon relegated my clock to a dresser drawer; I had no further need of its guidance.”

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! Happy Imbolg! It will all come ‘round again.

This Is Not a White Country

We're All In This Together... 36 x 18, $650

We’re All In This Together… 36 x 18, $650

Let’s get one thing straight: America is not a white country and never has been. In the first instance, it was settled by immigrants from Asia. We call these people “Native Americans” and they had established several thriving civilizations throughout the Americas long before Europeans ever set foot here. In the year of Columbus’ momentous “discovery”, the largest city in the world was Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital in central Mexico. There were also smaller cities across the North American Midwest, integrated with one another by extensive trade networks. Spanish explorers reported on these cities, most of which had disappeared by the time the English and French arrived, due to the spread of diseases brought in by the Spaniards.

When scores of disinherited younger sons of English lords came on the scene, seeking to establish their own lordships in the New World, they found the country very unlike the British Isles, so they began using slave labor to work their fields and herd their cattle. But the slaves were not just for labor. Have you ever asked yourself what a bunch of Englishmen knew about raising rice and cotton? The answer is clear: Absolutely nothing. The experts in raising rice and cotton – and also the experts in running cattle in open ranges – were the Africans. So it wasn’t just African labor that built this country: It was African agricultural experience and expertise. South Carolina itself – where the recent atrocities at Mother Emanuel Church were perpetrated – was a majority black state for decades (see below). Other regions of America – Texas, for example – were Hispanic before they were ever Anglo, and yet we express surprise that we have so many Spanish speakers and feel that this threatens “our” identity.

Seriously, people. We need to get over ourselves and make friends with the idea that “American” is a many-colored thing. Can we not just appreciate one another?SCarolinaPopFigs

Different Kinds of Vultures

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Last night I was privileged to attend a screening of Russell O. Bush’s award-winning documentary, “Vultures of Tibet,” a beautiful little movie about sacred rituals and secular appetites. The film is about the Tibetan tradition of “sky burial,” in which the bodies left behind by deceased persons are taken to high holy places and offered to the vultures. Where we say “dust to dust”, I guess they might say “flesh to flesh.” The film was also about the intrusion of tourists – mostly Chinese, but westerners as well – into this sacred tradition and thus about people feeding their ignorance and macabre emotions with misunderstood images and actions. Bush was treading on dangerous and ambiguous ground, calling attention to these rituals in order to argue that the people who practice them ought to be left alone. He succeeded remarkably well, intimately filming hands instead of faces and even having expatriate Tibetans re-record the voices in order to fully protect the identities of the people who worked with him in Tibet. As an anthropologist, I congratulate him on his cultural sensitivity. As a Buddhist, I thank him for his sincere efforts to understand a tradition that westerners too often discount as merely bizarre. If this film comes your way, don’t miss it!

http://vulturesoftibet.com/russellobush

Day of the Dead

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My novel, Way of the Serpent, includes a scene in which my youthful 111-year-old heroine spends the Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, where she is enjoying her ninth ten-year sabbatical. It is the year 2125… I thought it would be fun to share this passage with you today! 

Jenda awoke the next morning with a sense of dread. Did she really want to get into all of this? Luis anticipated such a state of mind. He put his arm across Jenda’s body and pulled her closer. “Let’s not work today,” he said. “Let’s just close the gallery and go for a walk and let you recover some more. It’s a good day for a walk – it’s a holiday in some of the old neighborhoods and we can enjoy the fun.”

Jenda was relieved. “What holiday? What day is today anyway?” She had lost track.

“It’s the first of November – el Dia de los Muertos!” Luis announced.

“Well, that doesn’t sound like much fun. Dead people day?” Jenda pulled the covers back up around her chin and stared at Luis, who was laughing. She glared at him.

“Sorry, mi amor. I guess it’s not a very important holiday in your culture.” He shrugged. “Not even very important in mine anymore, but some of the people still enjoy it.” And he explained that it was a day when people honored their ancestors – the deceased ones. Of course, not so long ago, almost all of one’s ancestors were deceased.

“Not like today, when you can just go visit your grandparents at their apartment instead of at the cemetery. Even your great-great-grandparents if you happen to be Gen4! Much nicer today,” Jenda said. She was still scowling. “Nobody goes to cemeteries anymore.”

“Well, some of these people do,” Luis explained. “Most of them don’t, though. For most people it has just become a day to get together with family and friends and enjoy music and dancing and good food and sweet cakes shaped like little skulls.”

“Ewww!” Jenda hid her face in the pillow. “You’re just trying to make me sick again!”

“No, no! I promise you, querida! They are delicious cakes and the skulls don’t look realistic at all. They look more like… like little clown faces.”

“Luis!! You know I hate clowns!” Jenda moaned.

Luis was laughing again. He knew. “Oh, come on. Just get over yourself and come along and see if you can have some fun doing some of the crazy things your crazy boyfriend’s crazy people do!”

He got up and held out his hand. His smile was that warm, engaging, big-as-the-world smile that had attracted Jenda to him from the outset. Jenda playfully held back for a moment, then grasped his hand firmly, raised herself slowly from the bed and, in her best deadpan voice, said, “Okay then. Let’s go play with your crazy dead people!”