Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

My novella, Coral Bones, the first story in the Shakespearean Monstrous Little Voices anthology from Rebellion Publishing, is out today!

Coral Bones - cover

What’s it about, you ask? Well:

Miranda, daughter to Prospero, the feared sorcerer-Duke of Milan, stifles in her new marriage. Oppressed by her father, unloved by Ferdinand, she seeks freedom; and is granted it, when her childhood friend, the fairy spirit Ariel, returns. Miranda sets out to reach Queen Titania‚Äôs court in Illyria, to make a new future…

As much as The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespearean plays, his treatment of Miranda has always bothered me. Aged sixteen, after being¬†raised alone on an island with only her father and spirits for company, Miranda’s ‘happy ending’ is to marry the first man she ever meets within a day of meeting him. This story is my way of asking: what happens next? Who is Miranda, really? What if Ariel, not Prospero, had the bulk of her raising? What would a girl from an island think of life at court?

What if Ariel had to set her free?

Coral Bones is a story about gender identity, feminism and fairies. I’m hugely honoured that it’s your first chance to explore the Monstrous Little Voices collection, and hope it leaves you eager to read the subsequent stories: The Course of True Love, by Kate Hartfield; The Unkindest Cut, by Emma Newman; Even in the Cannon’s Mouth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky; and On the Twelfth Night, by Jonathan Barnes.

Happy book day, everyone!

I was in a fey mood last night, but ‘fey’ didn’t quite seem to cover it. Burdened with the need to update my Facebook status accurately and appropriately, I scanned my knowledge of the English language for a suitable adjective – fruitlessly. Finally, after many minutes of struggle, I put on my thinking boots and¬†invented¬†a new¬†word: mnemencholy, derived from mneme (memory) and melancholy (sadness). Content at last, I slept.

On waking, I discovered that the illustrious Nick Harkaway, that well-known Englishman and little-known lexicographer, had already found my word and proceeded to blog a better definition for mnemencholia than I could possibly articulate. I am therefore stealing it; or rather, approving it for future usage. So, for those who are interested, mnemencholia (from mnemencholy) now officially means:

“Nostalgic sorrow brought on by recollection; melancholia triggered by an object, phrase, or scent and its associated memories; the wide sense of understanding and regret rising from the apprehension of one’s own history.”

Awesome.

I love the idea of¬†neologisms. Above any other quirk, I¬†cherish¬†the malleability of the English language. It rewards linguistic creativity, and, indeed, encourages it. There’s something profoundly satisfying in creating or stumbling on a new term, particularly if we find it clever, or funny, or apt, or (especially) all three. I love that crazy, screwball, onomatopoeic¬†slang like woot and clusterfuck can breed successfully in darkness, like forest mushrooms. I love that Shakespeare¬†has left us with Shylock and seachange; that A. A. Milne gave us heffalump, tigger and wol;¬†that crazy British aristocrats gave us sandwich, sundowner and¬†pukka while equally crazy Londoners gave us yob and Cockney rhyming slang. I love that tactile imagery like whale tail, muffin top and¬†bridezilla made their way to the dictionary, while gribblies, grock and meme are increasingly of the now.

What I don’t like, however, is corporate jargon. I shudder at every mention of swings and roundabouts, blue sky thinking, synergistics, action items or actioning tasks. Some people might (and, indeed, have) called that hypocritical, but the difference is one of joy and functionality. Corporate jargon doesn’t delight in itself. It isn’t clever, nor do buzzwords become popular because people enjoy their use. Rather, they become awkward, mechanical mainstays, often more cumbersome and less helpful than the plain language they replace. Technical jargon, in its proper sense, means words that are part of a specialised¬†vocabularly, as in the medical, legal and IT professions, but this is not true of corporate jargon. It obfuscates, generalises, hinders. Many terms¬†grow, not from¬†playful creativity, but uncorrected¬†malapropisms. Whereas slang¬†is viral in the¬†digital sense, passing rapidly¬†by word of mouth through a series of enthusiastic adapters, corporate jargon is a virus in the medical sense,¬†infiltrating healthy cells and using them to manufacture new infections, which then spread¬†through a mixture of¬†force, proximity and submission.¬†Cliches, at least, began as¬†sturdy concepts: their very effectiveness¬†lead to overfamiliarity, like playing a favourite song so¬†frequently that it becomes¬†unbearable. The best mutate into aphorisms. Not so corporate jargon, which is¬†propagated¬†purely on¬†the basis of necessity, and not¬†effectiveness. ¬†¬†

In short, good language is just another way of thinking clearly, or creatively, or at all. Like all new things, neologisms need to be tested, experimented with, tried on – our choice of slang is just as relevant¬†to our personalities as our¬†taste in clothes, films or music, and yet, quite often, we fail to even make a conscious decision about the words we use, or the circumstances under which we use them. Language, it’s been said, is the most singular achievement of our species, and¬†even without an alphabet, it’s still something unbelievably special.

So don’t take¬†your speech for granted. Read up on collective nouns (they’re pretty awesome); put old words into new contexts;¬†watch Joss Whedon shows; read Scott Westerfeld or Shakespeare or Kaz Cooke or Geoffrey McSkimming or anyone at all; think. But more than that, have fun.

It’s what words are for.

Oh, NSW Board of Studies, hear my plea: stop forcing me to agree with Miranda Devine. The state of your English curriculum is appalling, and you know why? Because it’s not, in fact, an English curriculum, so much as a bastardised, non-historical departure into post-modern wank. Ignoring the hideousness of placing pop songs and advertising on the same cultural footing as Shakespeare, there is nothing elitist in acknowledging that different media are designed for different ends, and while it’s¬†possible to consider a level of¬†ironic social commentary in¬†Britney Speares¬†songs, there’s a point beyond which you cannot go. Unlike Don McLean’s American Pie, with its moving lyrics, musical historicity and devout poetry,¬†Toxic is not attempting to communicate anything below the surface. American Pie is worth studying, not because¬†it’s a song, but because it’s a good song, both in its own right and for the purpose. Toxic isn’t.

Because when you set out to distance yourself from ‘elitism’ and all its permutations, you are intrinsically negating the concept of quality.¬†The argument that all forms are¬†equal is tantamount, in this instance, to saying that¬†all examples of a given form are equal: that there is no innate difference in skill, purpose or structure between Beethoven’s 9th and the Coca Cola jingle.¬†Logically and intuitively, this perception goes against everything¬†we understand about the world. To quote The Incredibles, a useful film for discussing homogeneity vs tall poppy syndrome,¬†calling everyone special is just another way of saying that no-one is. And when you take down the jargon, the¬†oh-so-cringeworthy NewSpeak¬†in which you feel frighteningly compelled to couch your arguments, you are effectively advocating cultural assimilation. If there is no innate difference between the substance of Sylvia Plath and a Mr Sheen add – if¬†you take all the wild, ritous variety of the creative world and declare¬†it to be identical, forcing each vibrant shape into the drab grey monotone of texthood – then it is you, Herr Doktor, who are running the police state, garbing the populace in prison smocks and shaving their obedient, cowering¬†heads.

Board of Studies, some animals are not more equal than others. Power is also a form of elitism, especially¬†if it brooks no argument, and¬†when you actively punish students for disagreeing with the conclusions of the syllabus –¬†regardless of how intelligently dissenters might argue their point –¬†you are placing the highest value, not on critical thinking, but on conformity. Critical thinking: one of the much-touted¬†‘outcomes’ of HSC English. Now there’s an irony. Herr God, Herr Lucifer:¬†beware, beware. Your brightest students, the ones who care¬†about literature,¬†are the ones disagreeing so vociferously. It shows they’ve been paying attention. They do not like what they see. And neither, by all accounts, do their teachers.

Since completing the NSW HSC in 2003, I’ve been howling into the void about your damn imbecility. I have poured thousands of words, hours of my life, into trying to understand why, despite spending most of Year 12 reading books or writing my own, I came to loathe 2 Unit English with a fiery vengeance. Nobody would listen then,¬†because the views of a mere student and teenager to boot were universally declared to be irrelevant. Nobody¬†listens now, either, because I’m not a teacher, a journalist or a member of the Board of Studies. No – I’m just a literate, eloquent reader who’s been through the system,¬†who’s seen what it looks like from both sides, and has had five years to think about it.

And you know what?

I still think you’re wrong.

In fact, I believe it. Powerfully. Call it a chip on my shoulder, highschool bitterness carried oh-so-unfortunately into adult life, but the gauntlet has been thrown. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair, o Board. And I eat men like air.

As a life-long afficionado of names, I can tell you off the top of my head that Alinta is an Aboriginal word for flame; that Byron means born by the cowsheds; and that J.M. Barrie invented the name Wendy because he wanted something ‘friendly’ to call his female lead. Even when writing short stories in primary school, I was convinced that my character names were crucial to who they were, and disagreed fiercely (though privately) with my teacher, who said that they could all be called Bob and it still wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Once I got my hands on a book of children’s names I found at home, I spent endless hours reading through and making lists of all my favourites – not for any children I might one day have, but to use as characters. Names I liked wented to heroines (and, occasionally, heroes). Names I didn’t, or which sounded ominous, went to villains. Inspired by Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – in which most of the horses had Aboriginal names – I procured an Aboriginal dictionary from my mother’s study and started my own story along similar lines, looking up words for things like stars, water, speed and various horse-related colours.

Now that I’m older, I still care just as deeply about what to call my characters. Even in RPG games, the thing that takes even longer than rolling stats – either in real life or through a game engine – is choosing a name. It has to match my avatar’s history, what they look like, who they are; and the thought of just calling them Stephanie and getting on with it rankles in a deep and resonant way. Because once you’ve named something, it stays named. And I’m ancient enough at heart to believe that there’s power in names. Roma gypsies have always thought so, and children in that culture are given three names: one private, and never told lightly; one commonly used among the clan; and one for everyone else, which is almost never used except on paper. Fantasy writers as diverse as Kate Elliot, Ursula K. le Guin and David Gemmell have all been fascinated by the concept of true names, and put it to appropriate use in their stories. But although most people might dismiss the idea out of hand, it’s worth having a look at the all-too-common disparity between the names we are given, and the things we are actually called.

For instance: my mother-in-law’s name is Margaret, but only as far as records are concerned. To everyone else, she is Janie. My niece’s name is Heather, but the family calls her Annie. Back in highschool, a friend’s boyfriend was introduced to everyone as Tain, which suited him, and it wasn’t until almost a year later that we realised it was short for Martin, which didn’t. At college, everyone had at least three names by which they were known, not in the least because we were asked to make them up and adopt them in Orientation Week. Those of us who already had familiar nicnames used them, and were consequently never known by our actual given names; everyone else had either a corruption of a first-or-last name, or something entirely random. One girl, called Lauren, asked to be known as Trucka, following the logic that Lauren abbreviated to Laurie, which sounded like lorrie, which is a kind of truck. But it stuck, and nobody ever called her anything else. Then there’s the Great Australian Tradition of oxymoronic names: fat blokes are Slim, short folk are Lofty, redheads are Blue, and so has it ever been, to the extent that an airline recognised globally for its distinctive red planes is called Virgin Blue. It’s multi-generational, even: two of my mother’s friends have been known as Chook and Vobbles since the sixties for reasons that are now completely forgotten, while there are people I know only by their online handles.

And in all this malarkey of names, I start to wonder: which are the ones with power? Which are, to borrow a term, merely safe and innocous use-names; and which are truly us? Juliet (or rather, Shakespeare) posited that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; which is true. But a rose by any other name would not be a rose; because the very nub of language is the point at which the word not only means, but is the thing. Think of Aztec pictograms, where each symbol stands for a whole word rather than a single letter. Then magnify the idea outwards. A word doesn’t just stand in place of an idea; it is the idea. Looked at this way, names don’t just mean us casually, merely as distinct from everyone else: they mean us specifically, behind the eyes and down to the bones, impossible to mistake.

The same idea is exhibited elsewhere in fantasy as the basis for spoken magic: the concept of a universal language, in which the word equals the thing to such an extent that speaking it aloud brings that thing into existence. For a real-world counterpart, one needs only look at the Bible: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God’ is undeniably rooted in the power of names, and it’s worth noting that Hebrew, to the Jews, was (and still is) seen as the language of Creation; God’s lingua franca.

Which brings us back to names, and the choosing of them. What with genetics, friends, cultural influences, free will and individual reactions to upbringing, there’s a good argument to say that apart from life, a name is the only lasting gift a parent can give (unless, of course, the child grows up to change their name by deedpole, a-la commedian Yahoo Serious or that bloke in the Sydney phonebook called Zaphod Beeblebrox). So why not make it a good one? Granted, not everyone agrees on what makes a fantastic name, and given my geekish tendencies, there’s a good chance that what I consider lovely might make the rest of the world flinch, but at the end of the day (to borrow a phrase abused to the point of ritual castigation by one forgettable Deputy Headmaster), it’s putting in thought that counts.

Or, to recall that much-thumbed book of children’s names, one could just read the notice that says, in bold print, not reccomended, placed with sensible good reason next to Jezebel (Hebrew), Lesbia (Greek) and Everhard (Old English).

There’s a particular sci-fi/fantasy subgenre to which I’ve always been partial: dystopia. Writers of all shades have been understandably fascinated by it, from George Orwell and Aldous Huxley to Isobelle Carmody and Joss Whedon. There’s a dreadful allure to the idea of society reaching¬†its technological peak, dissolving into cataclysm and then rebuilding from fragments, or else morphing into some non-functional travesty as the ultimate consequence of current politics. Dystopia is a potent combination of our most powerful fears and hopes: fear, that we will destroy utterly what is safe and familiar, and hope, that we might yet survive the experience. It evokes a deeply satisfying narrative cynicism, wherein the reader can sit back and feel utterly validated in their belief that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, because that’s what humanity does, as well as providing fertile ground for in-jokes, like future archaeologists confusing the jukebox and the iPod.

Still, there are different kinds of dystopia.¬†Forced to choose between the¬†societies of¬†Nineteen Eighty-Four¬†and Brave New World, the latter is unequivocally preferable: it’s certainly warped, but compared to the inescapable brutality of Orwell’s London, Huxley’s alternative of sex, clones and soma looks like a candyland. In books like Scatterlings and¬†Obernewtyn, Isobelle Carmody’s dystopia hinges on a struggling, semi-agrarian, post-nuclear holocaust world, where technology is elevated to¬†the¬†level of magic (and where actual magic makes an appearance, too).¬†Unsurprisingly, the most popular dystopia is also the kindest, stretching to the borderlands of straight sci-fi. To¬†paraphrase Joss Whedon’s summary¬†of his comic, Fray, this version of the future is much like everyone else’s: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there’s flying cars. These four variations more or less encapsulate¬†the different subgenres of dystopia:¬†political warning (Orwell),¬† what if (Huxley), neo-feudalism (Carmody) and same-but-worse (Whedon). Creatively and imaginatively, it’s the latter two which hold the most sway; and¬†with examples like¬†The Fifth Element and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, it’s easy to see why.¬†

Because for all it hinges on distruction, dystopia can be devilishly joyful. We savour it,¬†not sadistically, but because¬†it represents the ultimate¬†escapism: seeing the rules and restrictions¬†of our own society wrecked, inverted and¬†removed. Just as children fantasise about blowing up their school, adults fantasise about society¬†crumbling –¬†not¬†out of anger or a desire to hurt, but simply because they, like their younger counterparts,¬†don’t always want to attend. On this base level, dystopia is the glee of¬†impractical opportunism: without actually having to live through a cataclysm, we thrill to imagine what role¬†we’ll take in the new order of things, or¬†wonder how¬†that order might arise. Although the characters struggle, the audience doesn’t: instead, we live vicariously through survivors of a world which would most likely break us.

We’re funny like that.

Since Huxley’s novel, brave new world has become synonymous with an ironic, stunted dystopia, drained of hope: we hear the phrase, and any laughter is mocking. But Huxley was¬†quoting Shakespeare, as his book makes clear: Miranda’s lines from The Tempest. A naive girl raised on an unknown island, Miranda has never encountered¬†villany or vice; and when¬†finally confronted with the prospect of other people – schemers, drunkards, sages and¬†politicians all –¬†she is overjoyed.¬† ‘Oh, brave new world/that has such people in’t!’¬† Here, then, is the ultimate source of Huxley’s cynical title, and a perfect metaphor for dystopia:¬†beautiful youth¬†embracing a more treacherous future than it can possibly realise.

Which is why, in another dystopian in-joke, the Reaver-world in Joss Whedon’s film Serenity is called Miranda. Meta-cathartic, ne?

‘Is the King sick?’ asked my mother, somewhat archly. It was a telephone conversation, but still, I could hear the raised eyebrows. As I was meant to.

‘Well,’ I haughtily replied, ‘he’s not well.’

All of which might lead the casual eavesdropper to conclude one of three things about my family, viz:

1. We are intimately acquainted with royalty.

2. We are barking mad.

3. We have taken conversational existentialism to a new level.

In fact, the above vignette is, word for word, a quote from The Madness of King George, long-since appropriated by my mother and myself as a means of announcing illness. Specifically, if one of us hears through a third party (dad) that the other is sick, our next phone conversation will, inevitaby, be kicked off by this exchage, with the healthy person inquiring after the King, and the other responding. This has been the case for the better part of a decade, ever since the film in question first aired on TV, although why this particular line stuck remains a mystery of genetics.

Similarly, should one of my immediate kin be stricken with cough, cold, flu or any other such phlegm-wrought permutation, they will be dubbed victims of the Quodge, the Dreaded Lurgy or, in dire circumstances, the Great Spon Plague. All three terms derive from the Goon Show¬†and, by inference, the brain of Spike Milligan; and while lurgy isn’t uncommon slang in Australia and the UK, it’s still a rare¬†bystander who recalls the other two. Nadgers, or to have a case of the galloping nadgers, is another family favourite, although our useage of nadger refers to any scab, rash or visible skin ailment rather than¬†printing subroutines, as the internet might otherwise have you believe.

Were I still living at home and recouperating on my parents’ lounge, there is almost a 99% likelihood that my father would pop his head in and¬†suggest that I knit up the ravelled sleeve of care, as per Macbeth – sound advice, but in a slightly different context to Shakespeare’s original. I might also be offered a horse tablet, otherwise known as a Vitamin C pill, to keep my strength up: we’ve called them horse tablets ever since dad once bought a bottle of extra-large ones, prompting mum to comment that they were certainly big enough for a horse.

But the road to recovery is paved with pitfalls. On occasion, unscrupulous sorts have alleged that the invalid in question might not, in fact, be as invalid as claimed, meeting requests for the fetching of lunch and hot chocolate with rolled eyes. What’s the matter – got a bone in your arm?¬† my mother would ask, not entirely without sympathy. I’ve never understood this particular expression, as having a bone in your arm – several, in fact – is the normal state of affairs. Exactly how¬†this might impede my ability to get¬†something myself was never made clear, but the tone of delivery got the point across. What did your last slave die of? was another maternal favourite, until I¬†thought¬†of¬†a decent answer: boredom.

There’s a much-touted bit of trivia which states that Eskimos have hundreds of different words for snow, because they’re surrounded by it.¬†Not being an Eskimo, I can’t vouch for the truth of that statement,¬†but it makes me wonder if, in the case of family phraseology, there’s a similar phenomenon at work. We’re not always sick, all the time – but when we do succumb to our yearly bug, it tends to take hold, and we like to describe it. Graphically. For us, it’s not enough just to say, ‘I’ve got flu’ – no. We have quodge. We have spon. We have lurgy. We knit up sleeves, eat horse tablets, gallop nadgers and quote King George (well, his advisors, anyway). All by itself, it’s a different lexicography – a malady of tongues.

Pity we’re not Pentecostal, really. We’d probably win points.¬†¬†