Archive for July, 2008

Alright. Let’s lay some cards on the table.

I’m a would-be fantasy novelist. I’ve written 2.5 actual books, but none are published, nor are any currently en route to being published. The first of these manuscripts was the end-product of my high school schemes, a 160,000 word, first-volume behemoth. Between the ages of 13 and 18, it went through approximately five different iterations, each new interpretation resulting in the total abandonment of the one before, to the point where you could reasonably add another 100,000-odd words to the total project. That still doesn’t include multiple rewrites, countless hand-written notes, several different maps and all the creative angst and sanity of five years’ effort. The irony was, I changed the plot so many times that by the fourth version, I realised (belatedly) that my original framework had ceased to be viable. I scrapped it all, started again, and finished the final product not long before my 19th birthday. It took that long.

Of course, it’s rubbish. There’s interesting characters, some nice ideas, a few paragraphs I’m not entirely ashamed of, and that’s about it. But it wasn’t a waste of time. From the experience, I learned patience, editing, self-analysis and proved, once and for all, that I was capable of writing an entire book. I edited and submitted, but deep down, I knew it was time to move on: I hadn’t started the sequal, and realistically, I never would.

Enter my mind-numbing stint as a legal secretary, and the oodles of spare time in front of a computer it entailed. In the middle of an exceptionally long day, I started writing a new story, in no small way inspired by a recent spate of Buffy-watching. It grew longer. And longer. A plot arc formed. Characters developed. And all of a sudden, without quite intending to, I’d written a 75,000 word quasi-young-adult fantasy novel, with jokes (or at least, my own would-be version of Douglas Adams/Neil Gaiman comic asidery) and the expectation of two more books to come. I submitted; it was rejected, but kindly, and once with actual praise. I managed to wrangle a literary agent, who sent it to Penguin. I started writing the next volume. The agent closed her agency. I kept writing. The novel made it through the first round of Penguin approvals, but was knocked back at the second. I made final contact with my ex-agent, thanking her for the opportunity, and started a new edit of the first volume.

And that brings us up to date.

Something I find intensely problematic with being a would-be author: there’s lots of us. Some are exceptional, some are average, and some are frankly appalling. As best I can tell, the vast majority of people who get rejected by publishers belong to the latter category: it’s a base assumption, and one most people tend to make. Despite my own views, I might objectively be godawful, or at least mediocre. There’s many styles of writing, after all, and blogging is no guarantee of narrative chutzpah. And there’s always room for improvement.

But what I want – what I really want – is to be a fantasy author. It’s no good pretending otherwise. I can’t vouch for my skills, but I can vouch for my determination. A small, stubborn core of me is devoted to that end. It’s why my name, and not a pseudonym, is on this blog: I want to succeed, and be known in that success. I don’t want vast riches, or to be the next J. K Rowling: were that the case, my naievete would be frightening. What I dream about – the dream of dreams – is meeting the writers I love, as a published author.

In the aftermath of Comicon, the longing hits me powerfully, and twists. Over at DeepGenre, Kevin Andrew Murphy pens a writeup that makes me ebb and wrench with jealousy: Scott Kurtz at PvP and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, aka Tycho, aren’t helping, either. Clearly, there’s some issues here on my part, but I just want to be there, you know? The fact that I live on a different continent is just another reason to succeed.

I’d planned not to write here about trying to get published. Let’s face it: the blogsphere is a fantastic (ha!) outlet for angst, and while I’m as fond of ranting as the next person, I don’t want to whine at each and every hurdle. (Not much, anyway.) I’ll try to be good. I won’t let it hog the spotlight. But that’s where I’m coming from, and – with a bit of effort – where I’m going.

The recent lack of blog comes courtesy of my left shoulder, which, in conjuction with adjacent muscles in both my neck and back, decided to sieze up unexpectedly on Tuesday. The practical upshot of this incident was twofold: firstly, that I spent approximately six hours walking like Lurch from the Addams Family; and secondly, that any activity involving the simultaneous use of my neck and left hand (such as, for instance, typing) resulted in quite strong pain. So – no recent blogs.

As of tomorrow, I’m also going on a week’s holiday. Delays are expected, but thereinafter Shattersnipe will return with its regularly scheduled ramblings.

That is all.

As has been discussed elsewhere, I am, among other things, a fan of names and a fantasy geek. These are both areas in which taste is subjective, varying wildly from person to person; but with fantasy, you only need please yourself. Names are a different kettle of fish: not only do both partners have to agree on what to call their child, but it’s generally wise to consider the child itself. This is a blend of social pragmatism and courtesy: no matter how much you love the spelling, calling your daughter Melyndah is probably setting her up for a lifetime of everyone getting it wrong.

Well do I know the pain of this, because while I’m quite fond of my given name – Philippa – there are four different ways of spelling it, depending on how many L’s or P’s you include. Almost every single award or school document in my cupboard has it spelled incorrectly, along with my maiden name (Grahame – also with multiple versions). This got so bad at university that when I won a literary award in first year, the prize cheque was made out to ‘Phillip Graeme’ – which, apart from being a boy’s name, is so far distant from both actual spellings that I temporarily lost all faith in humanity. (Needless to say, I couldn’t cash it, and had to wait two weeks for one with my actual name to come through. ) On the flip side, there’s not an over-abundance of Philippas in my generation. Unlike friends called Sarah, Jessica, Matthew or David, I only had to share with one other person. Plus, I had Foz to fall back on. (For those who are interested, my dad first called me Foz as a little baby, after Fozzie Bear in the Muppets, because I smiled a lot. It stuck, and that’s pretty much all my family and family friends have ever called me.)

Point being, there’s a balance to names. If written down as a formula, it might be something like: familiar enough to spell correctly, but not so common as to lose all individuality. Even so, you can’t please everyone, and trying to do so is probably a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, it makes sense just to run with your preferences – after all, it’s going to be years before the kid can complain (if they ever do) and even then, you’ve got nicknames and the final option of deedpoll. So long as they don’t cop too much teasing for it in primary school, you’re good. (Which just makes me think of the Simpson’s flashback where Homer is trying to decide what to call Bart based on how kids might react, and settles on Bart over Louie, because it rhymes with smart rather than screwy. I’ve heard worse theories.) 

Which brings us to celebrity names, and the recent spate of interesting ones. The biggest complaint I’ve heard of Sunday Rose is the similarity to Sunday Roast, while most people just think Shiloh Nouvelle is odd. (Keen observers of tabloid gossip will note that Angelina Jolie now has three sons whose names end in X – Maddox, Pax and Knox.) The new Packer heir, today’s paper says, is called Indigo, while the notoriety of Gwyneth Paltrow’s children Moses and Apple is well-documented. At the tippy-top of the list are the children of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates: Fifi Trixibelle, Little Pixie, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence, and Peaches – whose full name, for those who are morbidly interested, is Peaches Honeyblossom Michelle Charlotte Angel Vanessa Geldof.

All of which, by conventional naming standards, are pretty unusual. But as a fantasy geek, a significant part of me doesn’t mind – after all, I enjoy far stranger names when it comes to beloved characters. The level on which I object (if at all) is one of childhood taunts and, in a couple of instances, adult embarassment: but both these things are socially conditioned. We object to weird names, not because of any inherent property in the name itself, but because it’s not what we’re used to, or what we’d choose ourself. It’s different. It’s pretty much guaranteed that kids will find a way to tease other kids, but in the adult world, why don’t we just get over it?

The truth is, we use names as a kind of social measure. Based on our own preferences, we make assumptions about the kind of people who’d call their child X or Y, weighing it up against a mental list. It crosses generations: looking at names on paper at work, I automatically assume that anyone called Beryl belongs to my father’s era; that Chrisie could be aged between twenty-five and forty; and that Melissa is around my own age. It’s easier with women than men, because for whatever quirk of masculine pride, we tend to be more conservative when it comes to boys, presumably thinking that men are more likely to suffer for having a different name. However snobbish and judgemental it makes us, we all do it. And in our adult way, we tease.

Some names don’t lend themselves much to mnemonic insults: thankfully, Philippa is one of them. A few inventive boys tried out ‘Philadelphia Cream Cheese’ in year 4, but decided, somewhat unsurprisingly, to let it die out. Pip was safe, too, until South Park made mockery of a certain nerdy English kid. With so many new names hitting the spotlight both in and out of celebrity circles, it’s tempting to speculate as to whether we might reach a point where unusual names no longer attract attention, both because it’s celebrities setting the precedent, and because, past a certain volume, novelties inevitably cease to be novel. But I doubt it. The more likely scenario is that a new notion of ‘normal’ names is adopted, and retro parents who favour Jane and Michael will be seen as revolutionaries compared to those with offspring called Aqua and Eldritch.

So in the interim, why not stay indidivual and stick with what you like? After all, it’s what everyone else is doing.

It’s hard to know whether the near-constant presence of Barrack Obama in the global media of late – compared to the marked absence of John McCain from anything outside the American press – is the result of a broader campaign, a reflection of its success, or simply based on the novelty of a black American presidential candidate. It might even be a mixture of all three. But reading today about Obama’s stirring speech to a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, it struck me that the crux of this election isn’t experience, race or even – to a certain extent – the age-old battle between Republican and Democrat. No. Come 4 November 2008, what the American people will vote on is a choice between isolationism and a policy of global cooperation.

Throughout history, American isolationism has had a sporadic role in world politics, notably in 1914 at the outbreak of WWI. While George Bush’s attitude to foreign affairs doesn’t fall exactly into this category, his attitude has long been one of America versus The World, dividing the planet into those for the War on Terror and those against, an approach which has entailed precious little middleground and not much elbow-room for diplomacy. As a policy, isolationsim tends to suggest a self-assuredness that the country in question reigns supreme – in its own opinion, anyway – and therefore need not sully its hands in external affairs, except as a kind of global policeman. Bush has simply pushed this to the next logical point: active interference, rather than passive, but still with the view that America is prima inter pares.

Should McCain be elected President, it seems likely that this approach will continue, possibly followed by a return to genuine isolationism, should circumstances allow. Certainly, I can’t see the opposite happening. Almost exclusively, his pitch has been to the American people – pragmatic, in the sense that these are, after all, his voters, but symptomatic of a mindset which says: the rest of you can go hang. We haven’t asked for your opinion, and we sure as hell aren’t going to.

By contrast, Obama has set out not just to woo his constituency, but the world at large. And it’s working. Whether or not other nations like America or agree with its current foreign policy, it remains an indsiputable superpower, and for many governments, the thought of a President who might actually bring their kind of diplomacy to the table, regardless which party he belongs to, is an exceedingly welcome change. As far as campaigns go, it portrays foresight, shrewd politics and a view that America needs to take the rest of the world into consideration – to compromise, not just when a strongarm approach has failed, but because it’s good politics to do so.

But the question, as always, rests with American voters. Can enough of them be persuaded to care what the rest of the world thinks? Is the idea of a change in foreign policy more attractive than the prospect of same-old, same-old? Have the failings of the Bush government resonated strongly enough that McCain can’t play to the idea of change = danger, familiarity = safe? Does increased global confidence in the President rate as an important electoral consideration? Or is the idea of foreign policy beyond military commitments so far off the radar that when the polls open, everything will hinge on the pitch-and-toss of national concerns?

I can’t be sure. But as a citizen of the world beyond the States, I know what my plea to voters is.

Choose, America. But choose wisely.

In what is probably my favourite headline ever, an environmental protestor has glued himself to the British Prime Minister.

Take a moment to process that.

Gordon Brown, despite the startlement this must have initially caused, managed to see the humour in the situation and laugh, so good on him. There could be an article all by itself explaining the train of thought which lead Dan Glass to think up this cunning plan – my imagined version involves alcohol, a rogue swan, bad kebabs, at least two strippers and John Cleese, but that could just be the crazy talking.

In real life, it was probably Michael Palin.

Between Hornsby and Newcastle in NSW is an area known as the Central Coast. Smack dab in the middle is a town called Gosford, which passes for the local Big Smoke; I grew up around there. As far as scenery goes, it’s a lovely region – there’s gorgeous beaches, national parks, acres of bushland and a proliferation of Australian wildlife. It’s not exactly the country, but sometimes, we had lyrebirds in our garden, and every day we fed kookaburras and lorrikeets on our balcony. Fourty minutes north, there’s a backroad between Kangy Angy and Tuggerah – more well known now, since they built a Westfield at one end of it – where you drive through an overhanging canopy of green light, and where, if you roll down the window, you’ll hear bellbirds and whip-birds. It’s like passing through a Henry Kendall poem.

We lived on top of a very steep hill in a very small suburb which, unless you’d ever been there, you wouldn’t have heard of. It was originally named after a local poet, with a small bronze plaque to that effect planted firmly in the park by the bus stop. Halfway up our hill, the houses on one side stopped, giving way in the space of a few meters to national park and, just inside the treeline, a bush turkey mound. It was a fantastic place to explore, and, like explorers, my friends and I gave names to our favourite places: Swing Rock, Lookout Rock, Turtle Rock, Hideaway, Sand Cave, Water Cave and the Skateboard Ramp, which was a huge, smooth, concave-sloping wall of rock, with a ledge above and a drop below. Sometimes, we used Aboriginal names: we built a rope swing at Jabin Jabin, and a miniature Uluru in the midst of an ocean of ferns became Lyaleatea. We climbed trees, made cubby houses, went on laborious treks, fell down short cliffs and, once every year or so, borrowed parental gardening tools and spent a weekend hacking back the lantana from paths near the road.

In fact, as a child, it was nothing but beautiful. Children aren’t prone to critiquing the familiar. Changes to the local landscape had washed over me in much the same way that new furniture did: I noticed when it turned up, blinked for a few days, and then carried on as though nothing had happened. There was no point of reference or comparison – I’d been to other places, but that’s not the same as living somewhere else. I spent three years at the local highschool before, in Year 10, a financial windfall let me transfer to a Sydney private school. It was, in many respects, a culture shock. I’d thought about the Coast before then, but now I had an external perspective. I read the newspaper. I looked things up. At the end of Year 10, I did work experience with the local Central Coast Express Advocate, travelling out to cover stories with the wickedly-cynical-and-observant woman who wrote the front page. And suddenly, things that had bothered me before began to make an awful kind of sense.

Because for all its scenery, the Central Coast is not a beautiful place. Traditionally, it has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in Australia, and the second highest rate of domestic violence in New South Wales. Of girls in my grade at highschool there, five fell pregnant before Year 11 – two deliberately, as an ill-considered means of keeping partners or escaping home. At least four students I knew were facing parental violence, and in all likelihood there were more I hadn’t heard of. Our school was fantastically under-resourced. And everywhere, you knew of kids who went off the rails, got hooked on drugs and hung out at the train station, leaden-eyed boys and shrill girls pushing strollers, the needle-marks still fresh on their skin…

Piece by piece, I put my view of things together: where had it gone wrong? In modern times, the Central Coast was developed as a retirement community – somewhere not too far from the city where retirees could congregate. The infrastructure was geared to this effect: chemists, hospitals, and a dearth of youth services. Then the housing estates came: the land sold cheap, houses went up, bushland came down, and thousands of young families began moving in. Early on, there weren’t too many problems, little children and old people needing, by and large, the same kinds of services. But the influx of families didn’t stop, and in the interim, their children were growing up. Kariong was a particular problem: belatedly, they built an extra primary school to accomodate the housing estate children, but every year, it was more and more under-resourced, quite literally bursting at the seams, unable to keep up with the growing population.

My own highschool was resourced for grades 7 – 12, on the premise that each grade would have a maximum of 150 students. By the time I left, the new Year 7 had over 300 students, none of whom could be turned away: it was a public school, and the Kariong estate fell within the school zone. Classes equipped for 25 students had upwards of 30; at one point, the sudden resignation of a maths teacher forced the collapse of an entire class, redistributing 40 students across the remainder. It was the same all over. Juvenile delinquency was an omnipresent problem: despite the skyrocketing young population, there were still too few youth services and even fewer jobs. 

At the same time, beach communities like Avoca were undergoing massive redevelopment – not for the local communities, but for the flocks of Sydneysiders who travelled up in summer for the surf. Erina Fair, the local shopping complex, was an economic case in point – after its fourth major redevelopment into a Westfield-size complex (without being, in fact, a Westfield), boutique stores that catered exclusively to a North Shore tourist clientele fell into a readily discernable pattern: roaring trade in summer, bust by winter, replaced in spring, roaring in summer, bust in winter, repeat ad nauseam. There’s almost no public transport on the Coast, which doesn’t help – buses are unreliable, and there’s only one train line. If you’re young and looking for something to do on a Friday night, there’s not many options, and most of them are far apart. It’s one of the reasons that Iguana Joe’s, of recent ignominious fame, is so popular: it’s open long after everything else has closed, across the road from where I went to kindergarden, by an oval where the circus used to come.

The Central Coast has always had problems. Some are considerably worse than others. But until I went away, I’d only seen lyrebirds.

There is a saying: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

In light of human nature, I feel moved to posit a companion phrase: that those who know history are still capable of repeating it, particularly if they thought it was a good idea the first time round.

With that in mind, here are three recent, related, news articles:

1. The tradition of Albanian sworn virgins;

2. The rise of hymenoplasty among young French women; and

3. The advent of American purity balls.

As far as the history of womens’ rights is concerned, I’m a remarkably privileged person. I wasn’t raised to believe that sex before marriage was bad (or, conversely, threatened with shame, penalty, violence or social exile should I indulge in it). Although I’m happily married now, I had a choice about how to live my life, with whom and under what circumstances. I was taught that women and men are equal. I live in an era of contraception and sexual freedom, and believe these are both good things. And because of my friends and family; because of my Australian citizenship, race, socio-economic status and – yes – atheism, I’ve never had to fight for this to be the case.  

In a nutshell: I take these freedoms for granted. To a certain extent, I can’t help it – because I’ve never had to seriously defend them. Oh, there were times early on at primary school when boys would tease or exclude me from games because I was a girl, and therefore The Enemy, but the fact that I was persistent, assertive and more than a little tomboyish meant that, nine times out of ten, I won them over. As a teenager, I butted heads with blokes about the social role of women, and as a university student, I went online and debated feminism (of a sort) with Christian Evangelists, but these were all theoretical debates, and society  – I knew – was On My Side. Day-to-day, I’ve never been kept back, excluded, ridiculed, restricted or punished for being female: my gender has never earned me a separate set of social rules or expectations. Unlike my mother, I’ve never had a bank laugh at me for trying to take out a loan as an umarried woman. I know these are recent developments, and I’m grateful for them. Should the need arise, I’d be ready to come to their defence. I also know women in most of the rest of the world aren’t half so lucky.

But what I struggle with – what I really struggle with – is the idea that glass ceilings, sexism and patriarchy still exist, not overseas, but in my society. The idea that western democracies can still have double standards where women are concerned feels…wrong. Logically, I know it’s true. And despite a wealth of inner scepticism, it’s not that I’m sceptical when I hear of it – not in the least. It’s just so far removed from my own experience that it’s like finding a sweatshop under the local council.

Take the idea of purity balls, for instance. The article mentions talk of making a similar thing for boys, but only as an afterthought. The problem isn’t with encouraging teen abstience: it’s in the execution and the mindset. Because only girls are targeted. There is no balancing idea that mothers keep the virtue of their sons: rather, it harks back to the day when men passed their daughters on to other men, and the women went quietly. One father, at least, drew a line at the idea of Indian-style arranged marriages, just wanting the parents to be involved, but presumably this can happen without attending a purity ball. As a system, it seems more likely to encourage parental veto of potential suitors than not – mostly because these dads use the word suitors to begin with, a term which connotes the necessity of permission. And where permission can be granted as a matter of course – by gum, it can be withheld.  

‘Purity’ isn’t a helpful word, either, because more than promoting abstience until such-and-such a time, it actively suggests dirtiness, or wrongness, in the alternative. This, I suspect, is the core of why abstinence-only sex education programs fail: they consider virginity more important than waiting until you’re ready. This isn’t a semantic distinction. As a religious concept, virginity means considerably more than not having had sex. It implies waiting, not until you’re ready, but until marriage, committing to this ideal rather than simply being sensible about the circumstances of your first time. Because, sooner or later, there will be a first time. Exalting virginity rather than talking about being comfortable – which, of necessity, means talking about actual sex – isn’t a great approach. And purity balls, as an extension of the concept, are hardly a step up.

They’re a step down, in fact, because they’re only aimed at girls. Unplanned pregnancies aren’t fun, especially for teenagers, but the idea that female virtue needs to be guarded that much more closely because women give birth overlooks the whole notion of male involvement as anything other than guardians. It says that because boys can’t get pregnant by slipping in the abstience stakes, there’s less (or no) need to worry; the fact that they can still impregnant girls is, apparently, the girl’s problem. Jumping to another glaring anachronism, the whole ‘purity ball’ concept hinges on daddy giving his daughter to a strapping lad, as opposed – say – to someone else’s daughter. That, methinks, is a whole ‘nother issue for the type of folk likely to attend purity balls, but damned if it doesn’t rate a mention.  

Hymenoplasty – surgery to reconstruct the appearance of virginity – is another concern. In France, young Muslim women in particular have been paying to have it done before their weddings, which raises an interesting question of sexual progression vs. traditionalism. Clearly, their husbands-to-be place a value on virginity, as one notorious court-case has made clear; but the women themselves, comfortable with sex outside of marriage, need only the semblance. Need, not want: this is a key point. They feel they’ll be punished for having had sex, and sadly, in some instances, they will be. 

The last sworn virgins in Albania are now old women; they’ve lived their whole lives as men, on the condition that they never have sex. In some instances, it was all they could do in a patriarchal society where their family had lost the male head of the household; others, doubtless, chose as much from sexual orientation as a desire for social standing. Oddly, the basis for this system was the appropriate weregild – blood-price – paid for the deaths of different people. Women were worth less than men; but virgins were worth the same. Logically, then, a virgin was as good as a man, and for as long as she stayed a virgin, a woman could live as a man. As ever, there’s no extra worth for a virgin male, because regardless of where on the globe you are – France, America, the Middle East, Albania – virginity is only praised in women. Sometimes, we pretend otherwise. But not often.

And in this spirit, we have father-daughter purity balls.

In this spirit, we have hymenoplasty before traditional weddings.

In this spirit, we have women only equal to men through celibacy – and even then, they cannot live in equality as women, but must take on the role of men.

Because in this spirit, women are not equal.

Writing on his blog about Dua Khalil, a 17-year-old girl beaten to death in an honour killing while a mob looked on, Joss Whedon had the following to say:

“How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I’m no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn’t buy into it. Women’s inferiority – in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished.

“…I can’t contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we’re shaping…I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.” 

Because no matter how civilised or enlightened we think ourselves, if we want our daughters to be pure and virginal above all else, and if we punish them for straying, then this is where we are headed. 

And history, as Shirley Bassey sang, keeps on repeating.