Monday, February 24, 2020

My Vaccination Story, Part One: No Poking

As a child I was not vaccinated. As a young adult, I took every vaccination imaginable. Why the change? And why at that time?
My parents, for religious reasons, did not have any of their children vaccinated. Therefore, when I was six years old in 1960, and our school held a district-wide vaccination campaign – probably against small pox – my parents declined to have us participate.
At my elementary school, the needles were not properly sterilized (a common problem before disposable needles) and those who received vaccinations contracted hepatitis.
Hepatitis is a virulent disease and easily transferable. Our entire community came down with it, including every single person in my family, although none of us received the vaccinations. 
I sat at our dining room table, too ill to lift my fork; watching my father and baby sister struggle to do the dishes. My littlest sister reached up to take a dish from our father, dry it awkwardly with a giant dish rag, then reach up to set it on the counter. That's the only time I ever saw my dad do dishes. The rest of my family were too sick to help.
Meanwhile, my mother lay in bed, covered with blankets because she was shivering. Our neighbor sat with her but could do very little by way of comfort. My mother was the color of dark brown mahogany stain. I wondered if she was dying.
I was told, frequently, that hepatitis was in my blood forever. That I should never ever, EVER give a blood transfusion because my blood could make someone who was already sick, even more sick. Perhaps even kill them. So, of course, no blood donations from me. (Yes, that is a sigh of relief from me in the background.) I didn't really want to give my blood away, but I would have if called upon to help friends or family in need.
Other than not giving blood, hepatitis didn't disrupt my life significantly. All my doctors knew about it, all my employers knew about it, all my dear friends had heard the story many times so they knew all about it.
But then my husband and I applied to serve in the Peace Corps. They wanted to know about that hepatitis because serving in second and third world countries could put me at risk, or I could put others at risk. Fortunately, by then, medical advancements had sorted out that there are several forms of hepatitis, caused by different forms of infection. Although mine was part of a community infection, it tested among the safe varieties. I could serve in another country with no fear – and also give blood. If I wanted to!
So because of a bad vaccination incident, I became infected with a terrible disease that was safe as long as it stayed inside me. I can understand parents who fear the effects of vaccinations on their children. My family was very ill, and I was affected all my life by a vaccination, but I didn't even get poked by a needle!
 Next week, the rest of my story.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Of Elves, Time Zones, and Sweating the Small Stuff

I do a lot of research as a fiction writer. It's one of the things I try to get out of.
I wanted to write a historical romance, many years ago, and I wanted a setting that no one had heard of so that I wouldn't have to do any research. I chose Wales; actually the border between Wales and England in the 900s. Seemed like an unknown time and location. I guess if I didn't know something about that bit of history, I would make it up (Horrors!" gasp my history professors). Or maybe I already knew enough to fake it. Or maybe teenie weenie elves would work on those parts -- at night – while I slept. Actually, I didn't have a plan for lack of knowledge on my part. So I dived into the story, figuring I would locate the rare books on the topic if I really needed to.
Turns out there were many books about the history and archeology of Wales and England. Dang!
Another story I wrote was about sparrows. Pretty simple topic, eh? Surely a peek in a nature book would suffice for research. But what does a sparrow chirp actually sound like? Luckily, I now have use of the internet, so I was able to listen to the chirps of little sparrows all day long. And what do magpies sound like? (Foolish me, I put them in this story with sparrows.) And how would a flock of sparrows attack a pile of garbage – say a hamburger and fries – on the roadside? And would there be a thorn bush in the same setting as rose bushes?
Oh no! More research. Dang!
I tend to write historical fiction, so of course, I must do some research if I want the time and setting to seem realistic to readers. Historical research quickly turns into serpentine rabbit holes.
For example, I wanted to know what time of day President Garfield died in 1881. I knew he had been shot by an assassin, that he lingered for several weeks, that telegraph notices about him were printed in every newspaper in the country. And I knew that he passed in the evening. My question: what time did he actually die, and when would citizens in later time zones be told?
What a rat's nest of information I stumbled upon. First, there were not yet time zones in 1881! How then, did people know what time it was (besides looking up at the sky and guessing)? Every town had jewelers and/or watch repair shops. Usually, these shops had a clock outside their building. Every day they would use a sextant (used by captains at sea to plot their location on the globe) to determine the exact location of the sun. From this reading, they would set the clock on the street, and people in town could then set their clocks.
Time zones as we know them, were developed by the railroads and passed into law in the early 1900s.
All that research, just to find out I couldn't use time zones in my story. Grrr.
I am currently reading The Silmarillion, by J. R. R. Tolkein. This is the backstory of his epic fantasy: The Lord of the Rings. Oh my goodness! The Silmarillion is the creation myth, god legends, and cultural development of the Elves of Middle Earth. In the back, are pages and pages of index to locate names and places, a map of the area of the stories, genealogy charts of the elf families and the human families. If all that isn't enough, there is an extensive appendix about the elven language. An entire language!
Talk about research!
I whine about research involving sparrows, but he did the fictional research for a vast fantasy.
Research is required for all genres of fiction: historical, fantasy, and future; thrillers, romances, and mysteries; children's, young adult, and erotica. To write good stories requires research.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Imagination Police

A controversy has erupted over whether a white woman can, or should, write a story about a family from Mexico. This is being labeled as "cultural appropriation".

The general complaint goes that a person from one culture cannot realistically write about another culture.

This is, I believe, another version of "write what you know".

To which I reply, if we could only write about what we know, including our culture, there would be no Carrie, written by Stephen King, a middle aged man, about a teenaged girl with telekinetic powers. No one that we know is telekinetic, but King wrote about it anyway. He had no teen girl experience at all because he is a man. Therefore, should he be shamed for having appropriated a gender and a fantastical power?

What about Jules Verne? He wrote about crazy stuff like submarines, hot air balloons traveling the world, and journeys into the Earth's core -- all before the 1900s. He could not possibly have known about these events, nor could anyone else in his time. Therefore, should he be shamed for writing fantastical, futuristic science stories when clearly he had not lived in those times yet?

Then there is J. R. R. Tolkien. He was never an elf, orc, or hobbit but he wrote about them with confidence. Fortunately for him, there are no living Elf communities to take him to task for writing about them when he never was one.

I understand the discomfort of having someone not like me -- a man, for example -- write a story about someone like me -- a woman. Sometimes men do a terrible job of this, and it shows.

But then we have the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, a beautiful story about a young woman in WWII Japan. The life of a geisha is depicted accurately -- at least to me, an American woman with an interest in history. Imagine my surprise to discover that it was written by an American, who lived in New York City, far from Japan, and who was a man. Is it less of a story for this? Not at all. If anything it shows what an accomplished author he is.

All my examples have been of male authors. Is this current fad of cultural shaming directed more at female authors?

But of course, my argument applies to almost every female author, as well. If they only wrote what they know, we would not have J. K. Rowling's tales about a boy wizard because Ms.
Rowling has never been a boy, nor a wizard. We would not have Georgette Heyer's delightful Edwardian era romances because Ms. Heyer did not live back then, and therefore cannot know it.

In fact, every single piece of historical fiction could be challenged and their authors shamed for writing about something they themselves never actually experienced: Louis Lamore,
Dorothy Dunnett, Taylor Caldwell, James Clavell, Lindsay Faye.

This is control of the most egregious sort: thou shalt only write what thou knowest, or thou wilt be shamed for having written. How dare thee!

Writing a novel, even a short story, takes a huge amount of effort. A good novel involves hours and hours of research that no one else ever sees. If the research and writing skills are strong enough, an author can write a very good novel.

But that's not all, is it? To write a work of fiction takes imagination.

Imagination is what makes Tolkein and Rowling so stunning. How did they imagine all that and still function in the real world? Our brains are on display for our imaginative powers whenever a novel is written. Every single novel, and there must be billions in the world by now, is a person using their imagination.

To those who decry the novel written by a white woman about a family from Mexico, I say: she used her imagination. Are you going to make her effort illegal because she is not herself from Mexico? Are you going to make novels written by Mexicans illegal if they are about other cultures than their own?

We already know that we can barely control human speech. Imagine trying to control human imagination!

It would be impossible -- and also, humans being thinking, rebellious creatures that we are, more people would use their imaginations. Teens would riot in the streets and movie moguls would testify to Congress, demanding that they be allowed to produce whatever fantastical stories they choose.

To this fad of cultural appropriation shaming, I say: Shame on you, you shamers. Unless you are prepared to develop and implement the Imagination Police, be quiet and enjoy reading a good book.

Better yet, write one of your own. Your imagination -- and the rest of us -- will thank you for it.