Friday, October 25, 2013

Cultures of Eternity

The Last Shaman of the Oruqen
Public domain photograph
by Richard Noll, 1994
Last week’s interview with Yangsze Choo got me thinking. Not to give away any spoilers—much of what she describes in The Ghost Bride is her own invention—in the interview she mentions that the family remains the basic unit in the Chinese afterlife just as it does in Chinese culture. Ghosts depend on their families for money, food, housing, clothing, luxuries—all the essentials, burned in greater or lesser quantities by surviving relatives to indicate their devotion or their affluence or both. People who die outside that family structure become “hungry ghosts,” miserable creatures who wander unfed and poorly clothed through the afterlife except once a year, when the community gets together and burns offerings for them.

Tatar ghosts, too, belong to communities based on blood ties. Nowadays, most Tatars profess one of the world’s major religions (Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity, for the most part) or an atheism adopted during the seven decades of Soviet rule. Older customs survive, such as tying strips of fabric to lone-standing trees in supplication, but the main religious impulse lies elsewhere. 

In the sixteenth century, though—the time depicted in my Legends of the Five Directions series—the sense of a multigenerational community comprising ancestors, current family members, and those yet to be born remained all-pervasive. Although the dead existed on a plane separate from the living, shamans could visit them. The ancestors could interfere in the lives of their descendants—to influence, warn, or protect. They guaranteed victory in battle, assisted in childbirth, and welcomed those who lost their struggles with enemies or disease. “By God and my ancestors,” was the oath sworn by warriors. The system of support supplied by the living seems to have operated more informally than the equivalent system in China, but it formed an essential and frequent element of daily life. Nomads tossed ladles of milk to honor the ancestors and fed them through grease dropped into the hearth fire or rubbed on the mouths of the wooden spirit dolls who represented the grandmother guardians. Decisions—whether political, economic, religious, or personal—took place within that larger community constituted by the dead and the living working (ideally) in harmony.

Western ghosts, in contrast, almost invariably haunt as individuals. The Celts, once a steppe people, do retain a sense of the dead as occupying a separate level of existence on the other side of a curtain that sometimes thins enough to cross. Hallowe’en, which we celebrate next week, is the much-diluted version of the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain (pron. Sav-in or Sow-ain, depending on whether you are Scots or Irish). On the night before the New Year, ghosts were believed to cross into the realm of the living, who had to guard themselves against this incursion. Today we protect ourselves from small children in fancy costumes who can be bought off with candy.

But the more usual Western ghost is not part of a horde, spiritual or otherwise. The abandoned lover who cannot let go, the monk who opposed the dissolution of his monastery, the captain of the ship who met an untimely end—these are Western ghosts. Their tragedies are individual, and they must be laid as individuals. We have no communal ritual to feed, honor, or appease them. Most of the time, we don’t believe they exist: what more shattering fate for a poor ghost can a society conjure up?

One system is not better or worse than another. The Western emphasis on the individual lies at the heart of our dedication to human rights and the value of every life as well as a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy. The Eurasian embrace of community supports those within the group even as it constricts their choices to those approved by the group. Moreover, the two systems overlap, and neither is perfect or complete. Other places in the world have their own views of the afterlife, their own mixes of individuality and collectivism.

But one thing is certain: the rules of life here on earth, however our own community defines them, do not end here. They bind us for eternity.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Raising Ghosts

I love tales of the afterlife. Why, I’m not exactly sure. The reassurance that there might be an afterlife certainly plays a part, but I have never liked horror stories—not even the yarns about ghosts told by kids around the campfire to ensure no one sleeps that night. I’m a sucker, though, for books about near death experiences, lives between lives, past-life regressions, and well-imagined other worlds that just happen to be populated by dead people. (Let me note that I don’t believe everything I read; what I enjoy is the fantasy element: if there were an afterlife, what would it be like?)

So you can imagine how delighted I was to run across Yangsze Choo’s stunning debut novel, The Ghost Bride. I couldn’t wait to sign her up for an interview. We had our conversation yesterday, and I discovered that it’s even more fun to chat with her in person than to read her book. You can hear the results at New Books in Historical Fiction. As always, these podcasts are available free of charge.

Not surprisingly, we talk at length about the Chinese view of the afterlife, as filtered through Yangsze’s imagination. But we also talk about writing and women’s roles and (I kid you not) the Car Talk guys on NPR. So even if you’re not as crazy about imagined afterlives as I am, go ahead and give it a listen.

The rest of this post comes from the interview page.

Malaya, 1893. Pan Li Lan, a beautiful eighteen-year-old, has watched her Chinese merchant family decline since the death of her mother from smallpox during Li Lan’s early childhood. Her father lives in isolation and smokes too much opium: bad for business, as anyone can see from the decaying surroundings of their Malacca estate.

Li Lan knows that her prospects of finding a husband are poor. Still, she does not expect her father to offer a dead man as bridegroom—even one whose family promises to keep her in luxury for the rest of her life. When Li Lan’s would-be husband begins to haunt her dreams—and she falls for his cousin in reality—her desperation to escape leads her on a journey through the Chinese afterlife, searching for the key that will free her from a marriage she dreads. But she slowly realizes that to succeed, she must uncover the secrets of her past … and her prospective groom’s.

The Ghost Bride opens a window on a fascinating and little-known world in which a spunky young woman tests the boundaries of her traditional middle-class existence in pursuit of a better future. Yangsze Choo brings Li Lan and her family to vivid life, then spins them off into a mirror society with rules eerily familiar yet utterly strange. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Slowing Down

Don’t ask me how I contracted pertussis, better known as whooping cough. No one I know has it, so I must have picked it up in some public place. Apparently it’s highly contagious, and like a lot of diseases of that type, it’s most contagious before you know you have it, in the initial stage when it seems like a cold—and a baby cold at that.

The whole thing came as a big surprise to me, not least because I had whooping cough as a child. I don’t remember it myself, but my mother got to nurse two kids under the age of five through the disease at the same time, so you can bet she remembers. I just assumed it was like measles and mumps, and once you survived the first round, you were set for life.

Then the whooping started. The first time was at dinner, and I thought I'd choked on a bit of lettuce. The second time, at 4 am, I had to face the possibility that this wasn’t an accident. I called the doctor the next morning, and by noon I had a prescription for amoxicillin. Which seems to be working, if slowly.

Problem is, I don’t do illness well. As one of my fellow editors once noted, “You have a great deal of energy.” At the time I thought she meant “man, you’re a pain,” because I had been lobbing issues at her like a demented monkey pitching coconuts (I later found out she meant it as a compliment), but either way, I had to admit she was right. Under normal circumstances, I do have a great deal of energy. I come from a long line of women who kept their households running despite the dozen kids and the herring going south when they should have gone north and the darned boat springing a leak right when it was supposed to put out to sea. In my day job I coordinate the work of a flock of editors while riding herd on fifteen to twenty authors at a time and waiting for the day to wrap up so I can start in on my research or my novel of the moment. That’s when I’m not updating this blog, working on my website, or doing my bit for Five Directions Press. When I read about Victorian heroines who slip gracefully into a decline, my natural instinct is to administer a swift kick in the pants and advice to get up and get moving. Who has time to be sick?

All of which may explain why, once in a while, my body decides to administer a swift kick in the pants to me and force me to slow down. As with pertussis.

I’m sure this is good for me. Really. But if you happen to see any of those wooden stress balls, like the ones Charles Laughton used to play Captain Bligh on Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), send them my way, okay?

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Blogging Books

I haven’t paid much attention to technology this year, focusing instead on publishing, podcasts, and—most of all—history. I stopped because I no longer had much to say. By now, I can get around Facebook, GoodReads, Tumblr, Pinterest, even Twitter—although I’m far from mastering any of them. Since I don’t aspire to the status of social media guru, the basics seem like enough.

But this week I joined a new site, BookLikes, devoted entirely to blogging about books. So I am back to reading help files, instructions, usage policies, and FAQs while puzzling over this feature or that and wondering how best to take advantage of this new service. I’ll talk about BookLikes itself in a moment. It’s a nice site—run out of Poland, near as I can tell, and launched only in May 2013. But first, why did I join? Am I addicted to social media? Cursed with the attention span of a butterfly? A glutton for punishment?

Xü Xi, Butterfly and Wisteria (970 AD)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain
in the United States because of its age.

None of the above (I hope—the butterfly charge sometimes seems all too apt).  The journey that led to BookLikes started on GoodReads. About two weeks ago, GoodReads announced that it had changed its terms of service to prohibit shelves, groups, and even reviews that focused primarily on authors’ behavior rather than their books. Its staff had already deleted some groups and shelves and would continue to check members’ content and remove any that violated the new terms of service. Five thousand messages and counting protested this decision and the way the staff communicated and implemented it.

This is not the place to discuss the ins and outs of the policy shift, on which I have mixed feelings. I did not join GoodReads to promote my books; at the time, I didn’t know that was possible. I joined because a fellow editor suggested it as a good place to find book recommendations. After joining, I did set up an author profile and claim my books; I have participated in giveaways and group reads, including one of my Golden Lynx; and I have joined a number of groups, taking care to read and observe the rules. I enjoy talking with readers—and with other writers, if they want to discuss books or writing rather than relentlessly promote. And on GoodReads as elsewhere, I try always to remain professional, which means never attacking or insulting anyone. So the change in GoodReads policy does not affect me personally. I will maintain my presence there even as I move (most of) my books and reviews to BookLikes.

The decision to move has less to do with GoodReads itself than with a recognition that the site may be over-saturated at this point: too many self-promoting authors, too many members in a plethora of groups too vast to track, too much corporate patronage. A small, emerging site seems worth exploring as an alternative or complement to the big, well-established one. Yes, BookLikes, if it succeeds, may one day be snapped up by a mega-corporation and develop the same problems that affect GoodReads. But that day is not yet, and if it happens, I can move on. In the meantime, I rather like the idea of being present at the beginning of something rather than jumping on midway.

So what is BookLikes? At its heart, it is a blogging site focused on books. If you have used Tumblr, you will recognize the interface. Each user who registers for a free account receives a personal site that includes a blog, which that user can use to review books, report progress on challenges, and comment on whatever s/he pleases. You can follow people (and block those who misbehave), as well as like and comment on others’ posts. You have bookshelves, which you can import from various other places, add to, and edit. You can synchronize with GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter if you like your social media working together—or keep them separate if you don’t. You can customize your blog template and add pages to it. BookLikes verifies author, publisher, and bookseller accounts and assigns them a green checkmark that confers certain privileges. The staff seems a bit overwhelmed at the moment by a massive influx of new members, so the verification does not happen instantaneously, but that’s understandable.

The one thing that is missing so far is groups, although these are supposed to be on their way. There is a certain geeky quality to the customization, which includes editing HTML, a frightening prospect for the likes of me. Fortunately, the early adopters have written helpful tutorials, although I have yet to figure out why my custom-designed wallpaper, which looks lovely on a computer browser, moves to obscure the page list when viewed on a tablet. The import of my books, shelves, and reviews went smoothly, though, and the site is on the whole easy to use and remarkably polished for a place that has spent only five months in the public eye. You can follow me there as cplesley.