What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

Advertisements

Full Moon

 

My arrival in Bali was blessed by the full moon of June and today (7/16)  is July’s full moon. In my new novel, Not Knowing, my main character has a tendency toward deep dreaming (or else insomnia) on full moon nights. Here’s one of my favorite dream sequences. It occurs toward the end of the book but isn’t a spoiler! You’ll have to read the story to understand its significance. For now, just enjoy its beauty!

I’m standing on the banks of a lagoon or a large lake. I think it’s the Trinity River estuary, but the vegetation feels more like Belize. There are mangroves all along the far shore. A warm breeze ruffles my hair and it carries the ver­dant scent of the jungle. I look across the water and it is only in seeing the reflection of the full moon that I real­ize it’s night. There are stars, too, a sky full of stars, inor­dinately bright for a full moon night. I walk toward the water’s edge. Off to my right I see the unmistakable form and pattern of a jaguar. His head is lifted, and he seems to be staring up at the stars. Then he crouches to lap lan­guidly at the water with his huge tongue, drinking in the reflected stars. … He pricks up his ears and turns in my direction. I smile as he watches me, his green eyes half closed, the tip end of his great tail twitching rhythmically. He turns away, disinterested. Then he sits, and, like a kitten, cleans the water droplets from his whisk­ers. A massive yawn exposes a mouthful of sharp teeth. He stands, stretches, and begins walking into, no, onto the water. It isn’t a lagoon or a lake but a vast mirrored surface. The jaguar walks foot to foot with his reflection and neither image is clearer than the other. He walks toward the moon, or rather to where the moon would be if this were actually a reflective surface, which it isn’t. It’s a conjoining of worlds. Suddenly I don’t know which way is up and which way down. The two worlds connect seamlessly. The cat climbs/descends onto a tree branch and sits there gazing at me, inviting me to wander out onto this membrane between two worlds. ‘Xibalba,’ I whisper to myself as I walk toward the moon. The surface is solid and yet it shimmers with every step I take… 

Come learn more about Meg’s life (and dream life) at my book launch on Saturday at Malvern Books!

 

First Pre-Publication Review!

I arrived home after three wonderful weeks in Bali to find this pre-publication review of my upcoming novel! Thank you, Claire Villarreal!

Not Knowing weaves past and present, dream and waking life together for a ride you won’t want to end–and once you finish it, you might still be finding yourself absorbed in the characters and their growth. Meg Fitzellen, anthropologist and rationalist, confronts a recent trauma during an archeological dig in Belize only to uncover deeper and darker secrets from her more distant past. Uncanny dreams, occasional flashbacks, and some old-fashioned fortune telling compel her at last to face the emotional fallout of events she’s long buried in a hidden drawer of her mind. Once all the secrets are out, Meg finds liberation not just from emotional baggage but also from an overly materialistic worldview that kept her from living in the magic of reality.

Donna Birdwell has a talent for evocative prose, lush settings, and dark secrets her characters must face as they grow into themselves, as well as moments of soaring ecstasy. Grab some coffee, put aside a weekend, and treat yourself to this expedition into a magical vision of reality.

Pre-order the Kindle version of Not Knowing now, or get the paperback at my official launch event at Malvern Books on July 20!

Happy Independence Day!

In honor of the Fourth of July, here’s a brief passage from my upcoming novel, NOT KNOWING, in which Meg’s archaeology students celebrate the holiday on site at Kawilkan, in the middle of the Belizean jungle.

Saturday would be the Fourth of July.  The students had purchased some fireworks in Santa Cruzita and now they were begging to set them off.

“We have to celebrate Independence Day,” Ashley said, following up with a vivid description (with gestures and sound effects) of fireworks displays in her hometown and some even more spectacular displays she’d witnessed in Beaumont on the banks of the Neches River while lis­tening to patriotic music played by the Symphony of Southeast Texas. Of course I’d finally agreed, warning the students to be extra careful.

“You can never be sure of the quality of fireworks,” I said. “I don’t want you to blow anything up. Especially not yourselves.”

Sarah had bought several packages of frozen wieners at the supermarket in Belmopan, as well as a yellow plas­tic container of mustard and some chutney that she claimed would be just like sweet pickle relish. Elodia and Seth had collaborated on making buns. And since it was a Saturday night, I’d okayed the beer as well, although I insisted that those who were setting off the fireworks must abstain until after everything had exploded.

Pacál said he’d had some experience with Mexican fire­works and volunteered to assist Brad in orchestrating the show. He read the name on each item and explained what they could expect from it. “Provided it really is what it says and provided it works at all.” He was obviously enjoying his role as cultural ombudsman. They cleared an area and agreed on which direction they would try to aim the fireworks.

They started off with a bundle of firecrackers. The spec­tators complained that they were pretty pathetic, not making nearly enough noise. I felt otherwise. I didn’t want to admit how much I hated fireworks. I remem­bered that one New Year’s Eve when Rick had gone with me to Charco Seco to meet my parents and how ashamed and angry he’d been at the way he freaked out during the fire­works display. None of the fireworks at the Kawilkan Fourth of July celebration were particularly loud or spec­tacular and a few were outright duds. But all in all they provided enough entertainment to satisfy our crowd. I was glad when the noise stopped.

The release date for NOT KNOWING is July 20, but you can preorder the ebook now on Amazon. Or join me at Malvern Books at 7 p.m. on the 20th and get a paperback. I’ll sign it for you!

Beaches

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a beach person. As a child, I got severely sunburned more than once on beach outings, so I learned early on that sun is not necessarily my friend. There’s a lot of sun at the beach.

I also react badly to wind; it exhausts me very quickly. There’s often a lot of wind at the beach.

Sand? It’s fun while you’re there, but it has a bad habit of lingering in shoes and clothing, where it is considerably less fun.

My main character, Meg, in NOT KNOWING has an aversion to large bodies of water. The water, in fact, is perhaps the only thing I love about beaches. But do I swim in it? No. Like Meg, I wade and dabble and admire it from the shore.

The beach here at Labuan Sait and Padang Padang, Uluwatu, Bali, is a beautiful beach, with majestic rock formations and soft white sand caressed by turquoise waves. Indonesians and foreigners mingle pleasantly, sipping chilled coconut water straight from the coconut or maybe a couple of Bintangs (Balinese beer). There’s also skewered chicken and corn on the cob, grilled right on the beach.

But that was yesterday, at low tide.

This morning the tide has come in, the beach has shrunk by half,  and the surfers are taking over. I have nothing against surfers, mind you. I know some really nice folks who surf and I get that it could be a really amazing experience, riding the crest of a wave and feeling the power of the ocean beneath your feet, trusting your strength and skill to keep you from being swallowed up. So it’s not the surfers I mind, it’s the culture that tends to spring up in their wake- the generic shops and cafes. Even worse is the luxury beach culture, with its insistence on all the modern conveniences of home, sprinkled lightly with a curated collection of enticing local flavors. But then you already know I’m not much of a tourist.

And yet…here I am, on the beach at Padang Padang. In Bali. I intend to enjoy my day to the fullest. Pass me the sunscreen!

 

Writers & Anthropologists

“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.

I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.

Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…

You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!

Time & Magic

“Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once and space exists so that everything doesn’t happen in the same place.” — Albert Einstein (allegedly…)

 

This quote showed up in my Facebook “memories” today. It was fortuitous, since I had already typed in the title of this post…

 

Bali (the space I currently occupy) invites reflections on time. In Bali, you see, there are three calendars running simultaneously – our standard Gregorian calendar is one; the 210-day calendar called Pawukon is another; and the third is the Saka lunar calendar.

The Pawukon is not so much a “year” as a cycle, “since no record is kept of successive ‘years,’ nor are they numbered or named. They just pass by.” The Pawukon is organized into ten different systems of weeks, from a one-day week to a ten-day week. Most important are the three-day, five-day, and seven-day weeks. All these different “weekdays” have names and the conjunctions of these myriad cycles is important in differentiating auspicious days from inauspicious ones for all kinds of activities.

In my new book (coming July 20), “time” is an important subtext to the story. Meg is an archaeologist, obsessed with the past. Her husband Seth is a science fiction author, writing about time travel and the future. So, yes, the subject of time comes up in their world. Here’s a brief example, in which they’re discussing an impasse in Seth’s WIP. Meg speaks:

“Are you sure they’re not inter­fering with the timeline?” (Would I mind so much if they were?)

“Well, there’s another aspect of the story I’m still work­ing on.” Seth scratched the back of his neck and frowned. “Maybe time isn’t a line…” 

You may now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!

(Quotes about Balinese time are from Fred Eiseman, Jr., BALI: SEKALA & NISKALA.)

Flow

I woke up this morning thinking about flow, about how awareness of flow, synchronization with flow, has been so important to life on our planet. Flow is profoundly present in cultures like the Balinese – the flow of water, the flow of light-energy (east/west), the flow of winds, the lunar flow of tides. We are water beings, light beings, wind beings. How have we in the modern West become so immured to flow?

So many sacred places around the world have to do with water (sacred springs, streams, rivers), or with the energy of celestial movement, with high places and low, with crossroads and confluence. The Balinese are deeply sensitive to their orientation within the flows in their world. Everything is kaja (toward Mount Agung – the active volcano that is the highest point on the island) or kelod (away from Agung) and concurrently kangin (east) or kauh (west). I want to know how it would feel to be like that, to be satisfied that I know where I am without Siri or Google Maps. To know which way is up, how the water and earth and heavens move (and me in it) and for that to be enough. Instead I often feel like a fish trapped in an overcrowded and stagnant pond, waiting to be fed.

Like Meg in my novel, I am sometimes troubled by what people call “magic.” This isn’t magic. It’s just flow. It’s real. It’s possible. It’s everywhere.

 

 

One Small Step…

I’ve chosen July 20 for the release of my new novel, NOT KNOWING, very deliberately: It’s the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Meg Fitzellen (my main character) knew that the moon landing was a significant event in the life of her father; she just had no idea how significant it truly was.

I watched the landing on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of a student hostel in Austria in 1969, while I was on a study-abroad trip. Not coincidentally, so did Meg’s father!

If you haven’t seen the CNN documentary yet, by all means tune in this Sunday, June 23!

Summertime

 

Happy summer solstice!

I know my friends in Texas think summer began weeks ago, but my tropical island nest here in Bali is treating me to such mild weather it’s hard to remember the 100 degrees in Austin earlier this month!

What I’m enjoying is also a very different tropical June from the one experienced by my main character, Meg Fitzellen, in my soon-to-be-released novel entitled NOT KNOWING. Meg is an archaeologist and every summer she heads for “the field” to dig and discover. Her archaeological site is Kawilkan in northern Belize, an area I know well from my own fieldwork, which began in the 1970s (and may still be ongoing)! The last time I was in Belize I was working on this very book at a resort near Belmopan LINK. That resort has kind of worked its way into my novel under a different name and with a few other changes.

In the book, Meg’s summer is not turning out the way she planned. As she observes on page 139, “Apparently, this summer was destined to push all my buttons. I’d just been reminded yet again of how dangerous it could be to have firearms in camp, reminded of exactly why I’d instituted my strict rule of no firearms in the first place. Dr. Fitzellen’s rule was no fire­arms. No firearms and no weed. No exceptions.”

Here’s hoping our summers turn out better than Meg’s! Mine is already downright epic!

You can now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!