Preserving Fire

I recently read an article about a museum exhibit in Boston that initially allowed visitors to try on a Japanese kimono. Protesters decried this as racist, exoticizing, Orientalist — and in response, the museum changed the policy, leaving the kimono where people could touch it, but not allowing anyone to wear it.

What struck me in the article was this:

But the reaction to the exhibition from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono.

It’s a useful reminder that the American perspective is not universal, and that the identities we construct here (the protestors were not Japanese, but Asian-American) carry their own political baggage that doesn’t necessarily mesh with other parts of the world. It also raises questions of how we should weigh competing concerns: at what point does a movement to oppose colonialism in the United States become, in and of itself, a colonial insistence on making other countries adhere to our standards of proper behavior? If people in Japan are okay with Americans trying on a kimono, should Asian-Americans be standing in the way of that?

It also comes back to the issue of “tradition” and its role in society. I was a folklore major in college and grad school, and since folklore is often defined in ways that put “tradition” at the heart of the field, that means I read a lot of definitions for what tradition is. My favorite, by far, was completely non-technical in origin (it’s a quotation from the composer Gustav Mahler), but I felt it got to the heart of the issue in a way that technical definitions don’t:

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.

“Kimono,” as we think of them now, are the fossilized relics of nineteenth century fashion, the domain of specialists who have learned all the rules and can steer clueless modern people through them like dolls. It’s as if a “dress” in Western society meant a corseted garment worn with a lobster tail bustle, made out of fabric that matches the color and pattern aesthetics of 1870, and god help you if you mistakenly wear a day dress to an evening dinner, or a riding dress when you intend to go for a walk in the park.

If that was what a “dress” was in 2015, it would be going the way of the dodo.

So people in Japan are trying to figure out how to preserve fire, instead of worshipping ashes. Part of that means relaxing the rules, so that you no longer have to do things exactly the way they were done in 1870 Japan. Different fabrics, different patterns, different ways of tying obi. Treating kimono like clothing, rather than a symbol of national identity that has to be kept under glass like a dead butterfly. Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing chain, is selling yukata in their American stores, because they want Americans to buy them. (I got one the other day. It isn’t just a bathrobe calling itself a yukata; it comes with an obi and instructions for how to tie it. Though it doesn’t tell you that it’ll look better if you put a towel around your waist to flatten out that curve before you get dressed.) And it isn’t just kimono: when I went to the wedding of an Indian friend from high school, I felt wildly out of place in my appropriate-for-a-Western-wedding dress. All her law school friends, most of whom were not Indian, were there in sari, because she’d offered to pick some up for them when she went to India to buy her own wedding gear. Sari are still going pretty strong because they’re adapting, developing different styles within the broad space of the concept, rather than remaining what they were in the days before the Raj.

There aren’t any easy answers for this. I own a sari now, one I bought in India with the help of a female relative of that high school friend. She not only helped me pick it out, she ran me all over town to make sure I got a blouse and underskirt to match it, and all the right jewelry, too. She’s totally cool with me wearing a sari. But Random Stranger #948 on the street? Might view it differently. Just like those Asian-American protestors thought the museum exhibit was racist cultural appropriation, while people back in Japan made sad faces over Americans not experiencing the beauty of the kimono. People don’t always agree, and you can’t explain to every person you pass on the street that you have the following reasons for believing it’s okay.

There’s one thing I can do, though. This Kickstarter aims to bring a kimono show to New York Fashion Week. The people organizing it seek the recognition of kimono as “a universal formal wear that is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.” To me, the key word there is boundaries. Kimono have been fenced in — like an exotic animal at a zoo, for outsider to goggle at and locals to say “yeah, remember when those were all over the place?” I don’t think the exhibit is about erasing the origin of kimono, forgetting their Japanese connections. It’s about knocking down the fence, letting the concept back into our social ecosystem. Letting it adapt to its new environment.

I’m backing the Kickstarter. And I’m thinking a lot of thinky thoughts.

Who knew Jane Austen was so naughty?

This got buried in my browser tabs, so I’m posting it rather late. But you may recall me linking to this fundraiser, for a lovely woman I met during my tour and her husband who were in a horrifically bad car accident not long after that weekend. The fundraiser is to help keep them going during the months of recovery and rehab, because neither of them will be able to work for quite some time, and insurance doesn’t take care of everything.

In order to encourage people to donate, Mary Robinette Kowal has organized some Acts of Whimsy. The first of these got posted a while ago: Mary Robinette Kowal reading a passage from Jane Austen in her best “phone sex voice.” It really is true . . . you can make anything sound dirty if you read it the right way. ;-)

The fundraiser is more than 80% of the way to its goal, but there’s still a little distance to go. So if Mary has successfully entertained you, please do think about helping out!

two sensory experiences

By which I mean, two pieces of media that focus on sensory experience in one way or another.


Perfect Sense did not, in the trailer I saw, bill itself as a science fiction movie, and in a lot of ways it isn’t. The focus is primarily on how the relationship between two people (a chef at a restaurant, and an epidemiologist who lives in an apartment overlooking the restaurant alley) is affected by an unexplained (and inexplicable) global epidemic that begins with people losing their sense of smell. But the epidemic doesn’t stop there: next they lose taste, then hearing, then sight. What makes it SFnal is the exploration of how individuals and society adapt to these changes. Eva Green’s epidemiologist never does figure out what’s causing the change, but at the restaurant where Ewan MacGregor’s chef works, they keep looking for ways to pursue their art even as the basis for it is pulled out from under them. Smell is a huge part of how we experience food, so when that goes away, they begin putting together the most strongly-flavored dishes they can. When taste goes, they turn to sound and texture: crunch, squish, softness, grittiness. (There’s a great scene where the restaurant manager reads out a glowing review of their work.) The transitions are bad; they’re always preceded by some kind of huge emotional swing, and many of these are extremely destructive. But after hearing fades, you see a table full of people at the restaurant carrying on a cheerful, animated conversation in sign language. Since the characters we’ve been following are still communicating through written notes and a handful of very rudimentary signs, there’s an unspoken implication that the people at those table were deaf long before this began: what the viewer has been encouraged to see as a calamitous loss is ordinary life for them, and that life can still be good.

I usually like my SFnal exploration more front and center, rather than squeezed in around the edges. But the anthropologist in me quite enjoyed this one.


Sadly, I was not as enthused by Sense8, the new Netflix series from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.

They did a great job setting up the cast. Our main characters are eight individuals linked by telepathy, and it’s obvious the writers had a mission statement to represent a broad cross-section of the world: the cop from Chicago and the hacker from San Francisco might seem like standard issue, the DJ from Iceland and the thief from Berlin a little less so — but then you get the banker from Seoul, the film star from Mexico City, the privileged young woman from Mumbai, and the bus driver from Nairobi. Four are women, four are men; one of the men (the film star) is gay, and one of the women (the hacker) is a transgender lesbian. I’m sure some people have sneered at this as “diversity for diversity’s sake” (as if that’s a bad thing), but it also matters to the story — because one of the important things going on here is that they have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different assumptions about the world. And it’s fun to watch those things collide. The “sensates” can project their spirits out so they see each other’s surroundings, and then they learn to possess each other’s bodies. It means they can give one another comfort and advice and, in a pinch, solve their problems for them: the Korean banker is also a participant in underground fighting rings, and kicks the asses of people threatening other members of her cluster. The Kenyan driver winds up behind the wheel of more than a few getaway vehicles. The Mexican movie star lies like a rug to get the German thief out of trouble, etc.

So why didn’t I like it more?

In a nutshell: too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby. In the first episode of the series, it becomes obvious that (of course) there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. By the end of the twelve-episode first season, we know that . . . there’s some kind of nefarious conspiracy to control and/or kill sensates. We can put some faces and names to individuals involved, and we know there’s a doctor who specializes in lobotomizing them — but we don’t know why, or what makes sensate clusters come into existence, or really anything of great substance about the metaplot. Most of the show’s attention is devoted to the lives of the sensates in this cluster and how they interact with one another. This means you’re tracking eight different plotlines at once: there are hints that some of them may connect, but even after twelve episodes, it’s little more than hints. And however much I may enjoy some parts of the character development (like the horrific encounter between Nomi and her family, or the hilarity of the kind-of threesome Lito ends up in), ultimately, I was really frustrated that the show seemed mostly content to wander around in the characters’ lives without really tying the whole group together and going somewhere with them.

Really, the opening credit sequence perfectly represents the problem. It’s a montage of shots from all around the world: famous sites, scenes of daily life, brief little snippets from Nairobi and Seoul and San Francisco and Mexico City and all the other places the characters are from. But there’s no arc to it, no coherent thread other than “hi, our show takes place all over the world!” It is, to use the old description of history, just one damn thing after another. Individually the bits may be lovely, but I want the whole to add up to more. And while it’s entirely possible the show will get there eventually . . . I’m not sure I’m willing to wait around for “eventually” to happen. I gave it one season to hook me; I don’t know that I’ll give it more.

Books read, June 2015

Very, very belated. But at least I’m managing to get it posted before August?

High volume of reading this month, and 100% of it was for work. It was revision/copy-edits/whatever, or it was material for a blurb, or it was research, or it was Hugo reading. There was nothing I finished this month that I picked up just because I felt like it. This makes me slightly cranky, even though I enjoyed a lot of what I read. Especially since so far in July, the pattern has been much the same.

Anyway, the books. I’m leaving the Hugo stuff out because I discussed it already in a separate post.

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Hugo Reading Report

I’ve accepted that I will probably not make it through all the Hugo reading before it’s time to vote. Uff da — what would I do in a normal year, when there aren’t chunks of the ballot that I’ve ruled out entirely? I have no idea. As it stands, I already kind of resent the amount of time I’ve spent reading things that aren’t what I would have chosen if left to my own devices. Possibly this means I am just not good Hugo voter material.

But anyway! I figure that before I make my (extremely belated) post about what I read in June, I should make a post about what I’ve read out of the Hugo packet. Not so much because I’m campaigning for people to vote in a particular way — rather, I want to work through my reactions to things, and my first attempt at thinking through “do I consider this to be Hugo-worthy material?”

If you need to refresh your memory on my personal Hugo reading rules, do so now. I did indeed end up reading some of the Puppy candidates, though I did not finish them all. I’m skipping over the Dramatic Presentations and the artists in this post.

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Actual Quote from an Actual Thing I Actually Read

From Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes, by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver, following a discussion of George Mallory’s social circle in Cambridge which features a number of quotes that make you think “my, that sounds more than a wee bit homoerotic”:

“But it was James Strachey, the future translator of Freud, and not his older brother Lytton who evidently initiated Mallory into the pleasures of ‘the higher sodomy,’ as [the Bloomsbury Group] called it. The precise nature of ‘l’affaire George’ is unclear and ultimately uninteresting. What is interesting and of some significance to the history of Himalayan mountaineering is” . . .

No. No, you do not get to drop a phrase like “the higher sodomy” into your book on the history of Himalayan mountaineering and then declare it uninteresting. You were interested enough in it to mention it; you bloody well ought to explain it. If the explanation does not fit into this book, then neither does the phrase. Stick with the fact that George Mallory slept with men; you don’t have to leave your reader wondering what precisely distinguishes “the higher sodomy” from “the lower sodomy” — a question which only invites the brain to come up with increasingly creative answers, all of which are an unnecessary distraction from the tale of how Mallory came to be chosen for the Everest expedition.

(One also cannot help but wonder if Isserman and Weaver were slightly uncomfortable with Mallory’s sexuality, given that they later say “the heterosexual side of his nature asserted itself permanently when he met and fell in love with Ruth Turner,” Mallory’s eventual wife. This book was written in 2008: bisexuality had been invented by then, guys. You don’t have to use a phrase that implies Mallory got over his attraction to men.)

EDIT: My brain being what it is, of course I had to go and google the phrase. As near as I can tell, “the higher sodomy” was the groundbreaking notion that instead of just buggering your fellow students in the good old public school fashion, you should also have romantic feelings for your partner. Shocking!

Empathy for Strangers

The other week I linked to a crazy Indiegogo campaign that was about crowdfunding a bailout for Greece. It didn’t hit its goal, of course — 1.6 billion euros is rather a lot to crowdfund — but it raised a surprising amount of money: over 2 million in a really short span of time. The person who started the campaign regrets not having thought of making it a flexible-funding effort, which would have meant that whatever funds were raised got used, even if the final goal was still miles away.

So now they’re trying again. This time the goal is more modest: 1 million euros, of which 20% has already been raised, and however much actually gets contributed will go toward helping out in Greece.

I find this fascinating because it’s a demonstration of empathy for strangers, and the ways in which individuals may be more compassionate than their governments. All through this ongoing financial trainwreck, we keep hearing about “austerity” and how people have to tighten their belts to get out of the hole. Debts have to be repaid, after all — you can’t weasel out of them, can’t ask for somebody to help you up when you’re down. But the effects of austerity are disastrous for the people who are least able to take the hit, while the wealthy cruise along with their belts untouched. And who says that forcing people to pay their debts is really the best and most moral answer? Why shouldn’t we help those who are down? Maybe someday, we’ll need someone else to do the same for us.

It’s the same principle behind Strike Debt, and (less explicitly) behind a lot of other charitable efforts. It’s people saying, I don’t care if you can’t repay me. What matters is getting you on your feet. We all do better when we help one another. It’s the Biblical/Torah doctrine of Jubilee: forgive the debts, let people wipe their slates clean, give those on the bottom a second chance. The way we run things these days, it sounds unthinkable — even immoral, letting people get out of their obligations. But when the alternative is to grind them down, and down, and down some more, until they’re buried so deep they’ll never have a chance of repaying you, much less achieving anything resembling success . . . then which one is really the moral choice? I choose Jubilee.

So I’m going to contribute to the Greek fund. I have no idea what world leaders are actually doing with Greece, but I know this much: fifty percent of young Greek men and women have no jobs. In September I’ll be visiting the island of Corfu as a tourist, oohing and aahing at the ancient ruins while being carefully steered away from the modern ones. I’ll feel a lot better if I know I’ve done something more direct to help. It’s a drop in the bucket, and I know that — but buckets get filled one drop at a time.

This time Mary Robinette Kowal has done a Very Silly Thing

. . . and an awesome one. :-D

You see, during our tour we made a pact. I wasn’t going to hold her to it, because I know she’s a ridiculously busy woman — but when I came up with my idea for a Glamourist Histories fanfic, we agreed that if I wrote that one, Mary would write the Lady Trent fanfic idea she had come up with.

And so she has.

It should still work just fine even if you aren’t familiar with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. (Though if you aren’t: oh my god, you should go watch that show. It’s fabulous.) There’s also an AO3 version, if you have an account there and want to be able to do the whole bookmarking/reccing/etc thing — but you should still check out Mary’s post, which has an explanation for how the story came about. (As I recall my reaction, it looked a bit like this. Or that look Mako Mori gives Pentecost in Pacific Rim, when Raleigh says he wants Mako to have a shot at the co-pilot test and she looks like every Christmas for the rest of her life just got offered to her at once.)

I hope you all are half as entertained by the result as I was. :-D

I have done a Very Silly Thing

So Mary Robinette Kowal and I were on tour back in May, which gave us abundant time to chat about various things. At one event, an audience member asked several questions that began with the disclaimer of “this probably isn’t a thing you’ve bothered to think about, but” — which had the effect of proving that no, really, Mary has thought about pretty much everything in the world of her Glamourist Histories. As we were changing back into civilian clothing at the end of the event, I said to her, “I’m willing to bet you’ve thought about the uses of glamour for porn.”

To which she laughed and told me about a glamural Vincent created in his student days.

Here is the tale of Vincent’s old glamural — and how Jane wound up seeing it.

All errors are my own (and there may be more than a few, since I wrote this on the plane flight from North Carolina to San Francisco and did basically no research whatsoever, apart from asking Mary a couple of glamour questions while we were retrieving our luggage). She is in no way responsible for any missteps of either history or canon. But I when I told her I was going to write this fic, she laughed so very evilly — and I hope you all will laugh, too!

(No spoilers for the series, apart from the inevitable and rather obvious one of “which characters got married at the end of the first book?”.)

In which I help to launch THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN

You may recall that my good friend Alyc Helms just published her first novel, The Dragons of Heaven. Well, this Saturday at 3 p.m. she is doing a reading and signing at Borderlands. And if you come to that event, you will get to see something special . . .

. . . which is to say, a cast of thousands* performing a certain scene from Alyc’s novel. Including yours truly, in the role of a fox spirit, for which I will trot out my best “bored Cate Blanchett” voice (as Alyc tells me that’s what all of her fox characters sound like in her head). So come at 3 p.m. to see the extravaganza!

*by which I mean about half a dozen