A Sprouting Seed

It should not surprise you that all my work on astrolabes has incurred the desire to make one. So when I found that a local silversmith was offering a jewellery-making class, I signed up right away, thinking this could be the first step in learning the requisite skills. So one late December day, I designed and made (with guidance) this brass and silver pendant. I chose the motif of a sprouting seedling because Persianate astrolabes frequently have retes in the form of leafy plants; my hope is that this experience is the seed that will someday grow into making a full astrolabe.

Below the cut are some in-progress photos from that initial session.
Continue reading “A Sprouting Seed”

On ‘Write What You Know’

The most powerful artistic portrayals of anything come from people who have personally experienced those things – and there are portrayals that fail because the writer lacks the life experience. So it makes sense to advise people to stick to what they know.

Then again, many of us who enjoy writing fiction (or acting, or what have you) do so because we want to be not ourselves for a while. To play pretend. The impulse to create is a desire to transcend.

Even if we actually are explicitly looking to tell a personally experienced truth, the objective outward facts may obscure the essence. We may create to present a story with altered outer trappings so that the core can be seen.

Anything we create is a reflection of us, infused as it is with the extent/limits of our knowledge, our emotional state at the time, and the general sense of how our minds work. Anything we make embodies us, whether or not this is an explicit goal.

I don’t think any of us can help but write what we know.

When truth is stranger

Some of the most painful feedback to receive on writing is when you include something based on personal experience, and readers tell you it isn’t believable. You know it’s not an affront, but it can feel like one – an accusation of lying, that somehow you’ve seen or reacted “wrong”.

In academic writing, you cite more sources or present more data or clarify your argument. But in fiction, what can you do?

You can give more or different information, to ground the thing in a context that makes it clearer how, yes, this tiny thing really could have that tremendous an impact (or that this thing could wash over someone altogether, or whatever it is).

Or you can decide that you are writing for those who already share your experience and therefore correctly understand your allusions. Anyone else is not the target audience, and therefore it’s on them to do the extra work.

Are you writing so that people unfamiliar can get a basic sense of you, or to take people who grasp the fundamentals to a higher level?

On Experiencing Illiteracy

There is an irony to spending your day on the minutest details of the written word, only to find yourself illiterate every time you leave the office. But here in this new city, I cannot read the local language at all. My second day, I was alone and hungry and surrounded by restaurants, afraid to order because I couldn’t read any of the menus. And I quickly found that although I could ask some questions (“Does this [pointing to a picture] have [things I can’t eat]?”), I couldn’t understand the answers.

But I am reminded of my grandmother’s aunt, whom I met when I was 19 and she was nearly 90. In her day, education was not free in her country and her parents could not afford to send their 11 children to school. She only learned the alphabet after she got married, and her ability with it remained limited all her life. She could sign her name (she took pride in this – no X on the line for her!), or match a written-down street name to a street-sign. But she could do no more than sound out, painfully and slowly, two or three lines of a postcard written phonetically in her native language.

At the time, my bookwormish teenage self was bewildered that I managed to connect with someone who had never read a book. The adult me marvels that she managed to get by when she couldn’t even read small and practical things: signage, menus, flyers. You don’t even realize how text-filled the world is until you can no longer read the writing all around you. And how did she manage when her children moved abroad and she travelled to see them, making her way in places where her language wasn’t spoken at all?

Right now, as I muddle through this new country, I keep telling myself that she managed, and so can I.

Two Cups

I decided to give myself a “congrats on the new job!” gift of a fancy mug. In a shop selling tea and all the accoutrements, I found these:


I asked the shopkeeper what the inscriptions meant. “Money” she said of the one on the left, and “peace or freedom” for the other. We joked that this felt like one of those folktales where someone has to make a weighty choice, and I was inclined towards the one on the right. “But you’re young!” she said. “Make money now; find peace later.”

So which one do you think I chose?

Airports

these strange liminal spaces
giving closure to one phase of life
and opening the gate to the next
holding equally
our partings and reunions
the promise of adventure and the fear of the unknown

after check-in, conveyor belts, screening, stamping, screen-consulting

long walkways
streams of people
high ceilings
call
for the calm
of a house of worship or a grand museum

until the announcement is yours and the frenzy of boarding

Owning and moving

I’ve just thrown away most of my old notebooks. Strange to think that the photos of marginalia are all I have left of them, though not nearly so strange as how I feel about letting them go. I expected to feel so much more – I mean, I’d kept them for years (some for over a decade) and held them to be especially dear possessions.

But in the end, I went Daenerys on Daario and decided to move on.

After 5 years in Qatar, I have a new job that’s taking me to a country I’ve never been to before. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks getting a headstart on a new language, sorting/packing stuff, and saying farewells. And to avoid the hassles of shipping or finding ways to reclaim things later, I’m giving up anything I can’t fit into two large suitcases, a carry-on case and a laptop bag. It’s always daunting to decide what makes the cut, but after 10+ moves I know I’ve never truly missed anything I’ve let go.

Ownership is a strange beast. The things you own enable you to do things, but they also hold you responsible (for the things themselves, as well as what you do with them). So it’s liberating to have less stuff, yet difficult to disown things. Ownership is both power and burden.

So I realized, going through my notebooks, that I did not want to be owned by them anymore. They’ve been tugging at me, to relearn enough to make sense of old lecture notes or remember the stories behind the marginalia or wonder about people I only remember because their names are scrawled there. But I don’t want to recreate past mental states; I want to give my energy to now and the future. And the most important lessons from the past I carry already, internally.

Drawing vs. Writing

Writing is not conscious of letterforms, as long as the words are legible. (I don’t imagine the look of words before writing them down.)

Drawing is full of conscious deliberation. Each line must be attended to; also the relationships of parts, the harmony of the whole. (Mentally I mark the page before setting down ink.)

Calligraphy is not written. Beautiful, consistent letters must be drawn.

Open and Closed

When I was growing up, it was impressed upon me that getting along with people – and different kinds of people – was important. (Not saying there weren’t “wrong kinds” of other people – and goodness knows I got into trouble for not always being able to discern who they were – but they were presented as exceptions to a general rule.) I kept hearing about the importance of things like openness, hospitality, and meeting others where they are. That everyone needs to learn how to graciously be with others unlike oneself. And when seeking advice on how to deal with interpersonal clashes, it usually came down to learning more about the other person, considering where they were coming from, and compromise.

I’m not sure when things changed, but now it seems that the dominant discourse I encounter is about shutting out. Advice for dealing with interpersonal or social conflict seems centred on creating and maintaining better boundaries. Protect yourself from danger and annoyance. Find and stick to the people like you, and learn to cut out toxic people.

I have noticed this shift in many areas of life, from the personal (dating advice) to the social (designated safe spaces) to many countries’ immigration policies. But I particularly want to talk about it with regard to cross-cultural issues.

When I was younger, I was taught that they way to deal with culture-clash was getting to know others better. Especially if you were a foreigner in a place. Explore the other culture(s), do cultural exchanges, and try other-cultural things. See how humanity has more in common than not. This was given as the way to be good to others as well as to enrich yourself.

Now, the discourse around culture clash seems to be all about threat. Keep away from others unlike you, we’re told. Be afraid of cultural dilution and protect your traditions. Be aware of the boundaries and don’t trespass into others’ space. For the good of both yourselves and others, keep to the places and people and practices of your own culture.

Obviously there are problems with either extreme of too much openness or being too closed off. But right now, I feel we are tending too much towards closing off. There just seems to be a great sense of fearfulness and lurking danger, and the result of it is a polarizing, unforgiving atmosphere that leaves a lot of people alienated. And I’m certain I’m not the only person feeling a loss of human connection.

Transference

A few hours after posting about a feeling of resonance I’ve been missing from stories, I realized: I know a term for that!

The word is ترحيل (tarhiil), which is Arabic and has dictionary definitions of ‘expulsion’, ‘transference’ and ‘resettlement’. I first came across it in in the context of Middle Eastern music, where it was used for the act of drawing on feelings, memories, impressions and using your artistry to transfer those internal experiences into an external form. The aim is both catharsis for the artist and emotional resonance for witnesses (“Someone else gets it!”). In an ensemble performance, tarhiil can be equally important between the artists performing as well as between the artists and the audience.

Tarhiil has always been the important feature of art (stories and otherwise) for me. It strikes me as the major reason to need creative work: to work through, purge, capture, and share the things we go through which other people don’t seem to “get”. Art where I don’t experience tarhiil tends to alienate me. Which, I guess, explains the alienation I’ve been feeling lately in what I’ve been reading.

In all fairness, I don’t think most modern spec-fic writers are aiming for tarhiil. That is certainly their prerogative. I think a lot of people are perfectly happy for their stories to be a self-aware game of blending or upending tropes, or a discourse of ideas. Or maybe there’s something about the fact that I, and many of the particular people I read and engage about writing, have spent a lot of time in academia. Which encourages distance between you and the text – being critical, intertextual, meta. Not exactly conducive to connecting with the emotional core of things.

On Resonance in Stories

Publishers and readers alike want imagination – the kind that gives life to situations that possibly nobody in the world has actually been through. Especially in speculative genres, which by definition present situations that the author hasn’t been in.

Yet when a character or situation – or even an environment – is written with real knowledge of the experience, it’s always a richer account. And even speculative fiction doesn’t present settings completely invented anew. I’ve always found that however extraordinary the “otherness” of such tales, it’s the human resonance that gives them impact. The sense that they’ve captured some truth about human experience despite the obvious fictions – or even because of them. Because fantastical elements can draw attention to parts of human experience that are difficult to see in straight-up realistic narratives.

This criterion of “resonance” is difficult to pin down, but I can say that I get frustrated with fiction that misses it. Many of the stories I’ve read recently don’t seem to have enough depth to the characters or world for me to feel – much less care about – the ramifications of plot events. (I don’t mean a lack of detail; there are minimalistically told stories that have all the depth I could want.) And it’s disappointing, because some of these stories had imaginative concepts or invoked my personal interests and I really wanted to like them.

Sometimes it’s because I have real experience of something an author doesn’t, and it feels like they’ve given an inaccurate portrayal. Not necessarily because they haven’t done the research – often it’s clear that the author has done a lot of research – but the story misses the spirit behind the details. The author may have focused on surface things that are normalized to real people in that situation, or they may have missed implications which, in real life, completely change where people’s interests and tensions lie. Sometimes they’re just too influenced by their own (sub)culture(s) to grasp what it can be like in another. The result of it all is that characters’ emotions and responses seem miscalibrated, and the story just doesn’t ring true.

But this only accounts for some of the cases where fiction feels like it’s missing something. More often lately, I feel like I’m not even reading stories, but concepts or questions presented in the trappings of story. As if authors aren’t writing to “What happens to characters faced with X?” but “What audience discussion will X generate?” There’s something distanced, abstracted, meta. Certainly I like to think about ideas and themes in the fiction I read – but primarily, I want to feel the human experiences which make those ideas and themes important.

When doing academic research, I was given the advice that a proposal for study has to pass the test: “So what?” You have to have an explanation for why the thing is worth studying. I suppose I’m looking for something similar in stories; I want a human reason for them, something that goes beyond “this topic is hot right now” or “this particular thing is cool”.