Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jules Verne: father of steampunk, science fiction icon or educator?

NOTE: This is the first part of a piece I did on Jules Verne. The whole piece was written for the Beyond Victoriana blog, but the I managed to develop two ideas and the piece splits perfectly into two shorter ones. The exploration of what sort of genre Verne pioneered didn't exactly fit with the Beyond Victoriana's focus on steampunk, so I'm posting it here. I'd like to warn that this is the accumulation of what I've read from Verne and about Verne.


When I embarked on reading Jules Verne for the first time, I wanted to trace steampunk’s root in literature. Verne has been, more often than not, hailed as steampunk’s father, a claim I find to be suspicious, considering how Verne lived through the Victorian era. Essentially he had witnessed every technological and scientific advance. What he wrote run [mostly] parallel to what happened in the world. In this article, I hope to examine – or at least try to – what can be considered steampunk, what not and what exactly Verne wrote as a genre.

The problem is that Verne didn’t write genre as we understand genre today because today’s concept of genre did not exist during his time. The stories Verne wrote were classified as “scientific romances”, and that term had a very different defitnion from what we would classify as “science fiction” or even “hard SF”.

When I hear steampunk, my first association is with steam. I think about an alternative Earth with a well-defined Victorian-inspired aesthetic and atmosphere, serving as a background for an adventurous tale filled with steam-powered technological wonders. The elements I’m listing are cosmetic, sure, but also the first logical connections a reader makes when hearing steampunk. Accent, however, also falls on technology’s inherence to the genre and its role as a girder for the secondary world.

Reading “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” confirmed that Verne didn’t write steampunk. No, his fiction comes closest to hard science fiction in terms of how science has been incorporated in the story. Both “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island” present the reader with an impressive amount of detailed information; the result of Verne’s devotion to and passion for scientific detail. Verne goes at great length to maintain an accurate scientific representation in both text; a defining theme for hard science fiction as a genre.

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” comes closest to fulfilling steampunk’s definition as science and technology are vital in the book. Perhaps one sixth of the text explains and clarifies how the Nautilus operates. If there is no Nautilus, there is no story.

However, the Nautilus runs on electricity and not on steam. Small, but significant difference. During the 1870s, electricity remained untapped and still undeveloped as a resource, while submarines ran on mechanical energy. Verne’s Nautilus, at the time, was a far-fetched design, both in scale and sophistication. In fact, it was after the success of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” when submarine design and construction underwent considerable developments and electricity became a commodity rather than a luxury. Since Verne lived during the Victorian era, it’s obvious that he looked into the future, creating a singular machine, which constituted the new technological era in human history.

However, it would be unfair to classify Jules Verne as a hard science fiction writer or science fiction writer in the purest sense. The most typical hard SF tropes are missing. Verne’s writing – save for some exceptions such as “From the Earth to the Moon,” its sequel “Around the Moon” and “Off on a Comet” – doesn’t deal with intergalactic voyages or the explorations of other worlds, even though the undersea voyages in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” can be considered as the exploration of a foreign world. His interest lies more in the natural sciences rather than the potential for technological progress.

This particular theme in Verne’s fiction can be explained by the purpose of his Les Voyages Extraordinaires ("The Extraordinary Voyages" in English). While Verne wrote to entertain, he also wrote in order to educate the average French family as during his lifetime illiteracy about geography and other natural sciences. Countering ignorance is also Pierre-Jules Hetzel’s, the editor and publisher behind Verne, objective behind the foundation of his the Magasin d’éducation et de recreation [Magazine for education and recreation] in 1863. The facts I’ve read about Verne’s life don’t indicate whether Hetzel had to convince Verne to take his own writing in this direction or whether Verne himself was eager to do something about this then-serious social issue. However, reading about how close both men worked with each other and how their business relationship grew into a lifelong friendship, it’s safe to assume that Verne was willing to accept the concept.

His technique to incorporate science in his writing was to discuss science with acquaintances and scientists that he knew. Jules Verne, himself, wasn’t a scientist. Nor had he traveled the world. His research didn’t come from past experience, but from reading all the available at the time literature. Essentially, what this translates to is that Verne wrote textbooks with plots and characters.

If one is to look closely at “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” it becomes apparent that this is as much an adventure story as it’s a textbook on geography [the constant updates on the ship’s route with generous descriptions of the scenery], on marine life [the countless hours professor Pierre Aronnax spends cataloguing fishes, mollusks and other marine life forms], on history [as Nemo tutors Aronnax about sunken ships and battles] and on oceanography, art and also a great deal on engineering.

Verne attempts to amp the adventurous spirit of the story, referencing to Homer’s Odyssey and effectively evoking the sense that this is an extraordinary journey. To a point, he achieves to keep my attention with the discovery of a sunken Atlantis, underwater hunts and vicious squid attacks. However, the book’s true purpose to act as a learning tool shines through and

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” reads like a travelogue. There is no central goal to give the voyage any purpose, until Ned Land devises a plan to liberate Aronnax, Conseil and himself from the Nautilus. This moment occurs in the last third of the book and is barely developed to satisfy my expectations. The ending is rather rushed.

Verne is the master of the slow reveal – as the Steampunk Scholar explains in his exquisite take on the novel – and this storytelling technique worked to his advantage given that he was educating first and entertaining second [the almost crawling pace and lack of general direction testify for this arrangement for priorities]. However, compared to modern steampunk novels such as “Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld and “Boneshaker” by Cherie Priest, which invest in a dynamic and fast-paced story, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” appears static.

“The Mysterious Island” also heavily relies on science for the story’s foundations, but Verne neither goes for steam, nor does he envision anything futuristic. I think it would be accurate to say that Verne pays tribute to Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”. Much like Robinson, the five colonists restart civilization on their island. What’s different is how Verne views the task at hand and manages to transform it into a textbook.

I was treated to charting expeditions in order to record and name all the various geographic formations, which is the continuation of how important geography is to Verne. I didn’t care for the geography of the island or how Cyrus Harding, resident engineer and miracle worker, estimated both the latitude and the longitude of Lincoln Island, though I imagine how useful and valued those skills at the time were. Through the young and unnaturally well-read Herbert, the reader encounters all the possible land animals, fowl and plant life. Much like Aronnax’s obsession with fish and mollusks, Herbert clarifies species, genus and whatever else can be said about any said organism. Through Pencroft’s efforts to maintain a more domesticated food source, the reader learns about agriculture. Then come lessons in how to fashion hunting tools, bricks, pottery, glass and even nitroglycerine.

Here, the focus falls on creation and gradual evolution rather than on adventures, and steam is nowhere to be seen. I realize that I’m very steam-centric, but steam technology defines this as a genre and the absence of steam in Verne’s work only disproves the claim that Jules Verne fathered steampunk.

The definition of steampunk as “a novel incorporating steam technology” is currently in flux, however. The best definition I’ve come across is in Surridge’s article on Black Gate magazine, where he defines a steampunk novel was one that addresses the tensions between industrialization & technology. And technology that was growing in prominence at the time simply happened to be steam, but he proves how the friction of technology is the keystone of steampunk novels.

The same crawling pace defines “The Mysterious Island”. As mentioned Verne is inspired by Robinson Crusoe’s tale and therefore he treats readers to a more slice-of-life approach rather any defined story arc. As with “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” the major goal - this time to leave the island - manifests near the end of the book, when the colonists’ lives are physically threatened. At the same time, the marooned convicts – the opposition to the colonists – are more or less a manifestation of chance rather than integral to the plot.

As established, Verne wrote educational science fiction [if I can use such a term] in order to promote awareness among adults and children. However, it’s exactly the didactic content that publishers in Europe and in the United States overlooked and chose to focus on the fictional, thus watering his work down, and presenting Verne as an adventurous science fiction writer. Modern adaptations of Verne from comic books to movies and to television reinforce this idea and most likely led to his title as ‘father of steampunk’. Inserting Mara as Nemo’s daughter [when in fact Nemo’s wife and children have been murdered] and changing Aronnax’s age in the made-for-television movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” [starring a young, appealing Patrick Dempsey] in order to fit a romantic subplot, contributes to the illusion that Verne did father steampunk—for who doesn’t want a bit of romance mixed with their adventure?

However, Verne’s writing and steampunk share several themes and tropes. The most obvious is the Victorian era, which for Verne was the present, while for steampunk a bringer of a very desirable atmosphere and aesthetic [I’m allowing my personal bias shine here]. Of course, the adventurous spirit also should be noted. Although, Verne overloaded his manuscripts with an array of facts and bogged down the pacing, the stories he told in Les Voyages Extraordinaires are nothing short than amazing flight of fantasy, which later on translated to steampunk titles now [I’m risking to insert George Mann and his series as an example].

In conclusion, what did Verne write? The best I can say is that Verne is Verne. At best, I can say that he pioneered with crossgenre, because he crafted stories, balancing between the fantastical fiction and the practical nonfiction.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Saint Filoteya, the Wise and Chaste

Today’s post, while still following the established trend to focus on saints, will focus on one of the few female saints of Bulgaria, Saint Reverend Filoteya. Considering how Christianity is patriarchal its nature, there is no surprise that the male saints outnumber the female ones and I have to add that the women in Christianity do not shine with daring tales. Saint George slew a dragon. Saint Haralambi chained diseases. Saint Filoteya relayed the wisdom of God, which, although not miraculous in the direct, reality-altering sense, is nonetheless an inspiring feat.

The post will be very short, because there are no real traditions surrounding her Name’s Day, the 7th of December, as Saint Filoteya plays a small role in the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox cannon. What is known about her is that Reverend Filoteya was born in the Byzantine city of Polivot in southern Thrace. Filoteya is a child given to childless parents after lengthy prayers, establishing that Filoteya is a miracle herself.

As a miracle, Filoteya leads a life that transcends her human heritage. Her parents made sure she received proper education, which at the time [and for a woman as well] was prestigious. Even married, Filoteya remained a virgin, preserving her purity and emanating the incorporeal existence of angels. After her husband’s death, Filoteya built a cell deep in the lake’s island near her home city. There she devoted herself to a heavy post, constant prayer, night-long vigils, tears and silence.

Her devotion to God and abstinence from all earthly delights earned her God’s favor and as a gift God granted her with the miraculous grace of prayer and wisdom to teach. Through her prayers she could heal anything from physical deformations to serious illnesses. Many of the clergy and villagers visited her in order to hear her godly advice and receive healing in her prayers.

However, the excessive abstinence weakened Filoteya and she foresaw her death, December the 7th, though records miss any information as to the century during which she lived or her age. Her holy relics proved to be incorruptible and performed many miracles.

I’d want to add my own analysis as to why Saint Filoteya. While her faith had been used as a divine weapon in dramatic moments, Saint Filoteya possessed integrity, the will and the faith to stray away from corruption. She enlightened her mind, refused to play a subservient role as a wife and child bearer, kept her body pure from earthly nutrition. Filoteya was more divine than she was human as she even channeled God’s power to heal. She suffered for her faith, but not as a tortured martyr. It was her selflessness that allowed her to transcend.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

[State of the Reader] Riding the Anthology Wave

I’m fairly not used to talking about my reading habits in a sort of journal type. When I ran my review blog [though technically I still am, but it’s dying as you] I didn’t look at my reading and report what I read or any trends in my habits. However, I want to examine my reading a bit in a more personal light.

The past four months have seen me devour more short fiction than I could have imagined. I’m on a strong short fiction wave, which is evident from the review links that I posted last week. I think that the momentary satisfaction of experiencing a story in one gulp, swallow or bite is fairly personal for me. This is the defining theme I have in my relationship with food. I don’t do slow and I don’t do one thing for a long time, especially when I want to distract myself. Things from October till now are far from rosy [adapting to a new family dynamic rarely is a positive process], so the need for distraction reflected in my reading.

I’m figuring this out as I type, so I’m probably as fascinated as you are about why I’m on an anthology high.

On to the books, then.

During the weekend, I finished reading The Zombie Apocalypse edited by Stephen Jones, a UK Mammoth Book of Horror [477 p.] and enjoyed it tremendously. There is much merit in the interconnected eyewitness accounts that create a collective narrative, delivered through all the possible means to record information. I consider this a rebirth of the epistolary novel [unless the epistolary novel is alive and well, in which case long live the epistolary novel!], though in a sense it’s not a single narrative; a strength considering how the ones that survive can tell the whole story from start to finish, while here, the reader experiences the casualties.

Right now, I am enjoying The Man Who Collected Machen & Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels, a fairly light collection published by Chomu Press. I have not sampled the author before, but I can sense that he’s going to be a favorite. I’m gradually introducing myself to the weird genre and I like it. Paul Jessup has been the first weird writer I’ve read so far, but his stories function on dream logic [Glass Coffin Girls], while Samuel submerges reality into its altered state.

In the future, I have too many to pick. I have been commissioned to review Ventriloquism by Cat Valente, so that should be fun, but I hope to manage in Hellebore & Rue [an anthology about queer spellcasters] and The Girl with no Hands & Other Stories by Angela Slatter. I do have some novels in between, so let’s see how things work out.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Before St. Valentine's Day, there was Trifon Zarezan

Yes, my culture post is late. I had to miss the deadline so that I could get it out of my system. Buckle up, this will be a long one. February the 14th is slotted for love, but before Cupid had a date, we celebrated [still do] Saint Trifon Zarezan, the saint of wine.

From a historical point of view, we did need a saint of wine and patron of wine makers, since viticulture and winemaking developed in the Bulgarian lands since the time of the ancient Thracians. Feasts with wine of the Thracian Kings Sitalk and Sevt impressed ancient Greek writers such as Aristophanes, Xenophon and Demosthenes. In time Ancient Thrace earned the title “Land of good wine.”

Before Christianity, however, we had a Thracian god of wine and fertility Sabazios, who also doubled as Dionysus and was the forerunner of the Christian patron saint of winegrowers St. Trifon. There are ancient myths revolving around Dionysus. Once upon a time, the Thracian king Lycurgus drove away the Dionysus’ merry retinue and the god sent madness the king’s way. The king killed his son, while hallucinating that he was cutting grapevines.

St. Trifon

There’s a less dramatic but similar Christian legend about a saint Trifon. He was punished for mocking the Virgin Mary by having his nose cut off with pruning knives. Therefore, there’s a popular nickname for the saint - Trifon the Chippy one. But regardless of tradition, St. Trifon remains a honored figure.

It’s believed that through his help and blessings vineyards become fertile. Therefore growers ritually seek him and ask him to come in their vineyards, when they gather at the feast of St. Trifon. Then they utter incantations so that so many grapes grow that they litter and hide the saint from the people’s eyes.

St. Trifon is considered the patron of the vineyards and people feast in his honor. The ones who celebrate aren’t only growers, but gardeners and tavern-keepers. Early in the morning, the women knead bread. Moreover, they cook chicken, which is traditionally filled with rice or groats. They boil the chicken whole and then grill it over a burning fire.

The ritualistic bread.

Later, bread, chicken and a wooden vessel of wine are put in a woolen bag. With these bags on their shoulders the men go into the vineyard. They cross themselves, take pruning knives and cuts three sticks from three hubs each. They cross themselves again and then sprinkle the whole vineyard with the fetched vine. This ritual is called “cutting”. Then all come together and choose a “king of the vineyards”. Only then can the feast begin. The king is decked with garlands of vine, one as a crown on his head and one wreath around his shoulders.

The coronation of the king, though I could not find the cart.

He is sat on a cart, which is then pulled by the men and under the sounds of bagpipes, drums and rebecs everyone heads back to the village or town. There, the procession stops at each and every house. The hostess of the house brings out a white cauldron with wine and gives the king to drink first and then allows the other to drink as well.

The remaining wine is thrown on the king, who utters the blessing: “Let the harvest be good! Let it overflow from thresholds!” The king meets the blessing with “Amen.” Once he arrives at his home, the king changes into new clothes and decorated with wreaths, he sits at a along table to meet people from the village.

Celebration is in full swing with men and women dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothing.

I want to note here that in different villages, the rituals’ specifics vary. The “cutting” ritual in particular has different incarnations as to how many sticks from the grapevines are cut, where they are cut from and in what order they are cut from. In some villages, there are races to see who can cut most vines in a given time interval. In some villages, the vine sticks are sprinkled with wine and then given to villagers, when the procession starts. It’s unheard of all men to wear the ritual wreaths, which then are kept throughout the year. Everything done here is to ensure a healthy and plentiful harvest as well as to officially open the new season.

The next two days, known in folklore “trifuntsi”, are venerated for protection from wolves, because February’s the coldest and harshest of months. Women aren’t allowed to use scissors in order to not open the wolf’s mouth. Forbidden are also knitting, spinning and sewing. The ritualistic bread comes once more into play. Women bake and distribute it among neighbors, who put morsels of it in animal milk as protection of livestock and people from wolves.

Besides bread and stuffed chicken on the feast of St. Trifon's Day you could offer roasted nuts from walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts or dried fruit. Nuts can also be candied. To do so, add a little sugar over them and bake them at moderate heat. Dried fruit come sprinkled with powdered sugar and rum. Wine is mandatory.

Usually in small towns and villages the wine’s stored in a cellar or basement. It’s better to remove it before your guests come and sit at the table. “The drink of the gods” is served with a main dish, but you can also serve it with a dessert. People also say that the wine served on this day will be also the wine that the vines will produce this year. Therefore, one must always bring out the best wine for one’s guests.

I hope that you found this enjoyable. Come Friday, I will talk about a female saint as per the request of one Margo Lanagan. Let’s see if I can deliver on time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Reviews hit the Web

I'm a bit silent, because I've spent the week working on an analysis on Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea" and the sequel "The Mysterious Island". I'm happy to announce that I've completed the beast at 3,400 words, which are a lot harder to achieve, when non-fiction is involved. I hope that I won't be needed to administer heavy edits, because I want to focus on my novel, which suffered from extreme lack of attention.

Anyway, I hit the web hard on Monday, posting two Valentine's-Day-appropriate reviews.

First stop is "Cthulhurotica" edited by Carrie Cuinn, over which I gushed at Rise Reviews:
What you, as the reader, must know about “Cthulhurotica” is the anthology’s conviction. I’ve never read an anthology so sure in its identity, with a such a strong voice or as consistent in its theme. From concept to execution, I couldn’t find a fault within these pages. The covert art, the internal illustrations, the content, everything fits. Honestly, “Cthulhurotica” is also the first book I’ve read to justify its existence and then give an intimate confession about its secrets. I’m talking about the essays at the back of the anthology.

Then I also comment on a second anthology with monstrous affections, namely "Rigor Amortis," edited by Jaym Gates and Erika Holt. I review the anthology at Innsmouth Free Press.
Rigor Amortis is a thing of beauty. Robert Nixon provides a simple, yet arousing and fitting cover, which sets the tone for the anthology. Galen Dara and Miranda Jean ensure the booklet, if I may call Rigor Amortis that for its 134 pages, has sufficient interior illustrations. Those I found most spectacular grace the four alliterative sections: Romance, Revenge, Risk, and the kinky Raunch. The creators aim for consistency in tone and establishing a forbidden sort of sensuality.

Both anthologies challenge sexuality and gender politics. I'd recommend both, personally.


On an unrelated note, Innsmouth Free Press is having a fundraiser to keep it going and so far it barely crossed 1/3 of the desired sum. I'd love it, if you could spare some to donate. What Silvia Moreno-Garcia is doing with the website is exceptional. Innsmouth Free Press has gathered all these wonderfully weird people [yes, I include myself in the number] and the work that we put into it is quality oriented.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

America dumbs down Downton Abbey

While I'm on the cultural vibe, I've read news that Downton Abbey [my favorite period TV drama to date] will be edited in order for the American audience to have a better grasp on the plot. I find it quite startling, when an article [on Digital Spy] opens with the following:

"TV executives in the US have simplified the central storyline in ITV's hit period drama Downton Abbey due to fears that it will not be understood by American audiences.

The programme's plot - in which a distant relative stands to inherit the estate - will be downplayed and the series running time cut from eight to six hours when it airs in the US next week.

Downton Abbey focuses on the inner workings of the English aristocracy, specifically a legal device called the 'entail', which determines how an estate should be divided up."

REALLY? This is my question. Personally, I don't know anything about British nobility and how the law treats their estate, but I've watched the show. It's pretty obvious: the title of Lord along with the estate and money goes to the closest male relative [in this case, cousin Matthew], while the current Lord's progeny [three sisters] are left with nothing. Even without having to google the 'entail', it is clearly defined in the context of the plot and dialogue.

However, 'it is not a concept people in the US are very familiar with' AND 'American audiences are used to a different speed when it comes to television drama and you need to get into a story very quickly.'

Basically, America managed to ruin another quality story WITHOUT re-booting, re-making or commissioning a sequel. A big round of applause, please. What I'm mostly bitter about is that the American TV executives underestimate the audience without giving it a chance to see for itself, whether it can get the references or not. Plus, it's a minor challenge, really. One which could very well inspire more viewers to become interested in other cultures and really, Britain is fascinating with its history of power shifts and nobility.

It's sad, really.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers

Hello and welcome to the first post on my cultural exploration of Bulgaria. As with all good ideas I came up with this on Twitter, sharing about my Names Day that was on Feb 10th. I’m in no way expert in Bulgarian folklore and cultural history and every fairy tale, legend, myth or ritual has its nuances among the different regions of the country. What I’m attempting to do is record as much as I can about Bulgaria in a sort-of database that could be useful should any one feels curious about my culture. So, if you are interested tune in every Friday.


Saint Haralampi [sometimes referred to as Haralambos or Haralampii]

This Friday I want to tackle my Names Day, St. Haralampi. First, let me explain the concept of the Names Days. I’m not aware if any other Eastern Orthodox Christian countries celebrate these, but the concept is simple. Bulgaria has a vast religious calendar that hosts all holidays, many of which are Names Days. I’m having hard time keeping this formal, because it looks as if I’m dumbing it down.

Yesterday was St. Haralampi, during which all the people who have this name or a variation of it celebrate. I’m Haralambi, so I celebrate, but so far haven’t heard of a female version of my name, because Haralambi is essentially a Greek name [because I’m ¼ Greek]. Mandatory for all Names Days is to wish the ‘name bearer’ [I invented this term, because I don’t want to type up ‘people who celebrate their Names Day’ all the time] health and prosperity. I don’t get many, because my Names Day is obscure. Not many are named after the saint, due to his Greek origin.

Now that I’ve covered the basics, I want to talk more about my saint. Saint Haralambi isn’t a well known historical figure. What is known about his life is that he died defending his faith, which automatically listed him as a martyr and thereafter as a saint. Legends say that he was a Miracle Worker and a great healer. Because of his healing, he was named a patron of diseases [icons portray him chaining all personifications of diseases and in particular, the plague itself] and beekeepers [because of honey’s healing properties].

As legends go, on February 10th Saint Haralampi captured the Plague [an ugly, old woman] and chained her. Celebrations during this day are meant to keep the plague outside the house. To protect themselves from this terrible disease, people fenced houses with hawthorn and briers [if my translation is correct], sewed garlic cloves to the headscarf for women and shirts for men. Some even dressed with special “pestilential shirts” sewn of nine widows.

The ritual bread.

Women are forbidden to work on this day, lest the plague enters their home. What they do is to bake a special bread [shown above]. Here the facts become rather meshed up. One source says that women coat the bread with blessed honey from the church and nuts. Then they cut it into four pieces that correspond with the four directions of the world. One is kept at home and the other three are given to neighbors and relatives as a token of health. But before any of this goes down, the house must be scrubbed clean.

There is another custom. Only the “pure” women [no idea whether by “pure” the text refers to virgins or healthy women] to bake bread and bring it outside the village at the crossroads to appease the plague. Alternatives to this suggest to leave food and water on the ceiling or to hang bread wrapped in cloth on an abandoned wall along with a wooden vessel of wine. To be on the safe side and drive away the plague, it’s called diminutive names: "sweet and honey", "good", "aunt". I’d go for a bit more mystical and call her “honeyed one.”

The most interesting custom so far has to do with the use of twins. The whole village has to be ritualistically plowed by two twin brothers. They have to do so using a plow made from a twin tree [or twin wood, I’m not sure about the translation here] and twin oxen.

If St. Haralampi’s Day is not celebrated, he will grow furious and will release the plague and other terrible diseases from their chains down on the ungrateful ones. Yes, my saint is not as benevolent as you thought. No wonder people commit to so many customs and rituals in his honor.

How honey is consecrated.

Also, on this day consecrated honey is believed to have especially strong healing properties as it can cure rashes, measles, wounds on the body. If you smear it on children’s foreheads, they remain healthy.


With this I conclude my first post. I do hope that you have found this interesting. Personally, I have inspirations for about three stories, so I know I enjoyed writing and researching it. I’m certain that there is more to be said and if you have questions I’ll be more than happy to look into them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Writing Foreign Cultures in Fiction and a Writer's Identity

Today’s post is an accumulation of responses to posts I’ve read as well as thoughts that have circulated in my mind in recent weeks. As such, don’t expect a structured post that goes on to make a point, but rather semi-connected musings as I reflect on being a writer from a different culture and a different language, writing in English and in hopes to appeal to the American or British [preferably both] industries.

Not a long while ago, I’ve been advised to play my strength and write about my country, since nobody writes about Bulgaria. It’s a small country, therefore unique and overlooked. I can see the merit in that proposal [yes, I’ve brainstormed ideas and toy with a modern Bulgarian UF], but this also prompted me to look back to everything that I’ve written so far and hope to write.

Because, you see, such a suggestion directly touches upon my identity as a writer. What you write about defines who you are. At least this my take on it. I’m decidedly non-Bulgarian or otherwise I would have written in Bulgarian rather than in English like a friend I have, whose work is inspiring and profound. Or at least trying to introduce the Bulgarian culture with its admirable qualities and faults. Not impossible, but a lot more harder, because Bulgaria is hard to convey in a different language, as is any other country for that matter.

No, I find it a lot more easier to throw scathing references to Jersey Shore, then sprinkle some Buffy the Vampire Slayer, surfer & 70’s slang along with other typically American cultural staples.

It’s easier because the American cultural dominates the world. The US has established one of the largest cultural hegemonies in the world. When communism finally fell in my country and Bulgaria could finally enter the world, culturally America influenced us a lot. I grew up with Cartoon Network, Looney Tunes, Disney and what not. Same with music, same with cinema and television. Bulgaria adopted reality TV with successful Bulgarian versions of Dancing with the Stars, Music Idol, Survivor, Music Academy and Big Brother. Even our food comes from American franchises such as the eternal McDonalds, Subway, Burger King, KFC and we even have Starbucks now.

All these things coexist with our loud taverns, greasy snack-selling kiosks, chalga music and Bulgarian superstitions and small personal rituals [all of which I love; well minus the chalga]. I’m not here to say ‘Grr, those pesky Americans are to blame,’ cause they nobody is at fault that one culture is popular all around the world. But it does explain why I find it easier to use the cultural references I grew up with and write for a considerably larger audience, because a lot of people look up America and are interested what comes from there as music, movies and literature.

Perhaps that makes me a traitor as my friends have joked about it. Perhaps my choice to look to the West, instead of looking in my cultural heritage, robs of me of my very own identity. I do fear that I’m doing the impossible, writing about a country that I have never stepped in and therefore can’t understand, which is a lot more different than being an immigrant in the USA or any other country for that matter. Do I even have an identity from a cultural standpoint? It is one of the toughest questions that I stand before.

There has been talk about multiculturalism in speculative fiction, about introducing different [overlooked] countries, about representing people of color and even challenging the ideal for beauty as fellow writer Theresa Bazelli did in her post ‘Searching for Beauty’:

“… that was when I started noticing things I'd taken for granted. I realized that most of the women that the men pined after in the stories were either buxom red heads, cool blonds, or girl next door brunettes. In the odd occasion that there was a raven haired girl involved, her skin was always pale and perfect, or at most, a Mediterranean olive.

I just hope this makes you writers stop and think. You may think that you're writing your novels just for entertainment, and yes! I hope you are! but consciously nor not, you're teaching the world about what you value and what you call beautiful. What you leave out shows just as much as what you leave in.”

And the current ideal of beauty belongs to which culture? Yes, the American, which I want to mention in order to illustrate how complex the issue with cultural identity is and how hard its diversification will be. Because culture is not only art, religion, literature, music, but also the ideal of beauty, the dining manners, the body language [whether people will look you in the eye or avoid eye contact] and even the way a person will cross the street [which speaks a lot about Bulgarians].

I’m pumped to take on the challenge; throw magic, folklore and Bulgaria in the pot, but it’s not that easy from a technical side. I’m not writing for my fellow Bulgarians [who don’t read in English] and know the culture as well, if not better, as I do. I’m writing for outsiders, which makes brings a whole set of problems attached with the execution.

Ekaterina Sedia’s essay “Seeing Through Foreign Eyes” pretty much nails it:

“Each culture has its own baggage, assumptions, background noise that is so familiar it fades into invisibility. References common to everyone in any given culture that require no explanation – and it is tempting to assume that the rest of the world shares them. Who doesn’t know Nancy Drew or Crisco? So when reading translated literature, for me it is always a small jolt of joy to spot such things, small details that are so obvious to the author that they deserve barely a mention, and could only be guessed at. On the other hand, to a non-native, these things might appear strange and exotic, and the outsider will point them out and question.

In a way, this pointing and questioning mode of storytelling is common in fantasy: after all, we all are familiar with portal stories, where your normal person travels to a strange world and hopefully gets a native guide and will have things explained to them. In a way, American writers writing about foreign cultures provides the same set-up – they point and explain things a native wouldn’t find mention-worthy. They’re a guide who shares the reader’s references, and thus the things they find weird, the reader will too. They nudge conspiratorially, the writer is a reader’s ally, outside of the foreign milieu they are traveling through. If not careful, it results in blatant exotization.

A foreign writer describing their culture, however, is not the same thing at all. Their alliance is to the cultural milieu with which they share their perspective, and the American reader is thus pushed outside of the text; the readers may find themselves alone, and suspect that there are things being said they don’t understand. And it seems as if that’s a turn off to many American readers.”

Basically, for me it boils down to either write about my culture like a native and produce a book that could very well be unreadable – I’m a writer and I panic about this; it’s what we do to procrastinate – or conspire with my target audience [the bigger one, the US one], play the ever diligent tour guide and come off as a foreigner writing about Bulgaria. Let me say, it’s a lot more complicated than ‘we need more diversity in our fiction’.

As Ekaterina Sedia says:

“So the issue with books set in foreign cultures, I think, that even though many SF/F readers call for more perspectives and diversity, they don’t really want that. They want someone familiar to show them some exotic stuff without actually challenging the readers’ assumptions or values.”

I tend to agree with her.
PS: It's up to use to change that you. I've not given up. I do plan on writing about Bulgaria, but I wanted to also open myself to how difficult it is in my particular case.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Stories from Editland

PROJECT: Crimson Cacophony
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
STATS: Chapter 14

PROGRESS: I'm surprisingly on schedule, which is to be admired. Though I assume it has a lot to do with the fact that I merged two chapters as I realized that I couldn't possible stretch something, which would only last for several seconds. Anyway, it's been an up and down experience so far. I do believe the direction is correct [*applause*], but getting there some days is hard.

Random Things About Editing a Novel:

1) It's a rollercoaster ride. It can be as enjoyable as the process of creating new words and it can as infuriating as the creating of new words. However, the difficulties stem from a different place. I can't say that I find editing enjoyable. My biggest lesson that I have to learn is consistency and this excludes falling head over heels over a new idea. Seriously, I've postponed editing this novel for more than three years.

2) I fear that even with editing I underwrite and will come up short with a novel. Which is a fear I transferred from first drafts. I'm highly un-mathematical. I can't think of a story and estimate its length in words. I know I underwrite and I can't estimate whether the tendency will continue.

3) While editing doesn't determine whether you fail as a writer, I do think that editing shows you whether or not you are a good storyteller [in the desired medium]. Some writers are suited to do short stories, while others fair better with novels. My opinion, editing demonstrates where one fits best. So far, I'm having a hellish time with my, which I can't estimate whether has to do with me doing it for the first time or something else. I'm positive that when I start editing my second novel I will know for sure.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Editor Blogs that I follow and you should to

'Editor Girl' by Jimmie Robinson. Yes, editors are superheroes and they have their phrase.
~ 'By the Red Pen, we rise!'

It’s Sunday, which means it’s time to share my favorite blogs from my Google Reader. This week I’m on editing mode, so I decided to pick an editor’s blog to showcase. Turns out it was a harder task than I originally thought. Editors and agents are toughest to filter as they tackle pretty much the same areas. Agents talk about their work and their criteria, while editors talk about their field. The content is quite narrowed down thematically with more touching points. The deal with writers is that they talk not only about writing, editing and promotion, but about the genre they are in, fellow writers, their personal tale on the road to publication; basically add a certain autobiographical touch and a broad list of topics.

What all of the above BS means, is that I will probably repeat myself, when tackling agent or editor’s blogs. Therefore, I decided to group the three editor’s blogs that I almost religiously follow.

Behler Blog [run by editor Lynn Price]: It’s almost sacrilegious to me, if you don’t follow this blog. I admit that I’m blinded by Price’s humor. Lynn is hilarious. No point denying it. Also not denying that her tongue-in-cheek discussion – which switches to a serious, professional and spot-on advice – keeps me coming and coming. Thematically, Lynn discusses the editor’s side of the publishing, particularly a small press’ editor. More often than not, however, Lynn feels that certain etiquette should be taught to her writer audience and what she teaches makes sense. So one blog: not-holier-than-thou advice and awesome conversations between Lynn and her beagle [margaritas may or may not be involved].

Edittorrent [run by editing duo Theresa & Alicia]: I visit this blog, because Theresa and Alicia tackle the technical side, the actual editing that you expect an editor to do [because editors supposedly edit, but somehow there is this complex hierarchy in the publishing industry that confuses me as to which is responsible for what]. Many blogs discuss the business that propels the industry: contracts, etiquette, distribution, querying etc. Most cases advice and opinions wildly differ, until a writer loses the ghost of his sanity. Edittorrent provides an in-depth analytical look at establishing settings in different ways, narrative, passive and active voice, sentence craft, dialog [as in how to fill information in-between the character’s lines], signal words, appositives [yeah, I had to look that one up, too] and many more. It’s highly useful as they explain what you do anyway and how to become aware of how to control.

Editorial Anonymous
[run by uh, Anonymous]: I’m going to specify that said blog is aimed at children book writers, so some of the content is geared towards them [useless to you]. However, that being said I enjoy this blog, because the editor has a personal touch. He/she does not write winding posts with too many points [that often confuse], instead rounds up several questions from his/her readers and answers them in a short and understandable manner. It’s a sort of “Dear Shirley” blog, but again useful because the main thing about the publishing industry is that no one gets there the same way. The specificity of the questions and how relative they are to you is what makes use to you. It becomes quite easy to browse the blog and find those gold nuggets you are looking for.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Editing my Novel and the Progress so Far

The image is called 'Writer' by Rui Ricardo AND exemplifies what talented writers should be all about aka casting people shaped fires that have sex.

The grand slam editing has commenced. The butt has been in the chair [or the small, green, pitiful thing that passes as a chair in my house] and I’ve started the Manic February Editing Marathon. I would have been more regular hadn’t family elements decided to mess up my oh so glorious schedule for hours every day, which resulted in not being able to gather my wits. At the same time I developed some serious headaches, which had a lot to do with exam stress as I unwound.

Editing Preparation: I spent two days in doing a chapter by chapter breakdown for my novel. I had a most glorious idea that demands 2/3 of the current version to be rewritten fundamentally and I hate myself for doing this, but this sounds like the right direction. However, I know my relationship with the middle and decided that a chapter by chapter outline will help me avoid the saggy middle, keep pacing in check and make sure I don’t mysteriously forget one of the story threads [guilty].

I really do think that the chapter-by-chapter breakdown is a good way to overcome the issues with the middle, if you have the same problem. You also get to visually track how much work you have left [again if your chapter numbers fluctuate from revision to revision].

Progress: Not as impressive. I’ve covered the first eleven chapters. Since I’m satisfied with the first ten chapters, most of my work consisted in altering small details, insert questions and check for consistency with the new creative direction. Only chapter eleven underwent changes as I cut half of it and wrote it anew.

The current plan is to tackle chapter rewrites, taking two days for each chapter. If this plan is successful, then I can in theory be done with this rewrite by the middle of March. Suits me.