My author’s copies of my book, The Two Isabellas of King John, arrived at my house yesterday! So exciting to get to unbox those!
My author’s copies of my book, The Two Isabellas of King John, arrived at my house yesterday! So exciting to get to unbox those!
Throughout this blog, I have tried to help bring diversity to my own (and hopefully others’) reading practices, to show new ways reading diversely can enrich your life, and teach how readers can do their part to try to influence publishing to stimulate diversity in the industry. Studies show that reading literary fiction helps to hone empathy and compassion by seeing the world from the point of view of people unlike ourselves. However, there is another side to this in addition to honing empathy. Many books set in different countries or even different communities within our own country offer a unique perspective of the world and can give readers the sense of having traveled to a new place from the comfort of our own chair. Enter: book tourism, or armchair traveling.
One of my favorite forms of armchair traveling is through food writing or food tourism. My very favorite food tourism writer is the late, greatly-missed Anthony Bourdain. He summed it up wonderfully in his book Medium Raw when he said, “Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go” (Bourdain 56). Food writing encompasses the best of both worlds, showing readers a new part of the world geographically as well as introducing them to new foods and the cultures that cook them. In addition to the canon of Bourdain’s writing, which is elegant, witty, and achingly poignant, the works of Bill Buford, Fuchsia Dunlop, and Fergus Henderson are also well worth a read. One of the best I have read is Climbing the Mango Tree by Madhur Jaffrey, which introduces readers to the influences of spice, dining al fresco under the mango trees, and learning to cook surrounded by your family matriarchs while growing up in the Indian Himalayan foothills. Who wouldn’t want to grow up climbing mango trees?
Fiction that prominently features food in some way also inspires wanderlust. A vivid scene over a meal or in a kitchen evokes the sights and aromas that truly bring a setting to life. The kitchen is the heart of the home for a reason, and it is over a meal where we can learn the most about people and cultures. Breaking bread is a traditional way to meet new friends and to make peace with enemies. When reading a book like Chocolat by Joanne Harris, you can taste the chocolate as well as feel the cool air of the small French village, smell the bakery up the road, see the cobblestones of the ancient streets. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel gives readers a taste – pun intended – of life in turn of the century Mexico along with characters who can imbue their food with their emotions. One of my favorite novels of recent years is Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King, a historical fiction set in ancient Rome about Marcus Gavius Apicius, the author of the oldest cookbook in the world. This not only makes readers want to travel to Rome and see all the places referred to in the novel, but many passages from Apicius’s cookbook are included in the text as well. Ancient Roman cooking at its finest!
Below are some books, fiction and nonfiction alike, which have inspired wanderlust and food cravings in one way or another. What books would you recommend to instill wanderlust?
Julia Child (My Life in France)
Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate)
William Bostwick (The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer)
Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun)
Fergus Henderson (The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating)
Marcus Samuelsson (Yes, Chef)
Bourdain, Anthony. Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. London, Bloomsbury Publishing Group, 2010.
Stillman, Jessica. “New Study: Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathetic.” The Inc. Life, 2019.
2020 is finally coming to an end. This was one of the most miserable fucking years ever and it can piss right off. While my life wasn’t really impacted all that much by any kind of quarantine – I’m practically a shut-in in my daily life anyway – I did miss traveling. I am incredibly lucky and grateful that I have a job that allows me to work from home and that my daughter and I have remained healthy. So has my mom, though the rest of my family didn’t come through the pandemic unscathed. Everyone is doing ok so far, though, and I am happy for that. I feel terrible for the many millions of people who have lost their jobs, for the over 300,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 (and the more than 1.6 million worldwide), and everyone who is struggling in ways large and small during this very strange and awful time. My grandmother would have said, “This, too, shall pass,” and I know she is right. Sometimes it is hard to see that, though, in the middle of events.
Of course, even the worst times have some bright points. Or, as Emperor Georgiou quoted in “Terra Firma part 2,” “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” The BEST thing has to be Biden kicking Idiot Hitler’s fat ass. A related bright point to Biden’s election is that we also get Kamala Harris as our first Madam Vice President. I can’t wait! Having a compassionate, intelligent, engaged, literate President and Vice President in office will surely be a sea change after the past obscene four years of the sub-literate, cruel, anti-science, racist, misogynist, corrupt excrescence currently squatting in the Oval Office. Can’t wait for that creature to become irrelevant again, and likely imprisoned.
For me, books and reading are always a refuge and solace. I can travel by way of books, even if I am physically stuck in Arizona. I can go to other parts of the world or to new worlds entirely. I can encounter people who are facing the same struggles I face, or I can learn more about others who face completely different challenges in their life. I always aim to read 100 books a year. According to my Goodreads Year in Books, I didn’t get to 100 this year, though if I were to add up all the articles I read for research, I would probably get to 100 books total easily. But I didn’t count articles. I’m done researching now, though, and my manuscript is in to the publisher and I hopefully never have to think much on it again! Never thought I would be sick of medieval Europe, but here we are.
Also, as anyone who spends any time with me at all knows, I love reading challenges because they stretch my comfort zone. I love learning about authors and cultures I’ve never been exposed to before. I am passionate about supporting and amplifying the voices of women and authors of color. So to try to do all of these things, I always participate in Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge. I don’t always get through the whole list, depending on what all is happening, but I did this year! I even reviewed almost all of them. I try hard to write a review for every book I read, but sometimes I don’t get around to doing it. But at least I finished it, even WITH all the research and work I was doing to write my own book. I’m pretty proud of me. How did you do on your various reading goals this year? Mine are below the cut.
Heyyyy, this year I decided also to outline what I might read for the Reading Women challenge. I tend to complete that challenge most years, too, but rarely write about it. I don’t know why, especially considering how hard I try to amplify women’s voices, work, and literature. Probably it’s because many of the tasks here overlap a little with the Book Riot Read Harder challenge so I don’t focus a lot on this one in its own right. Here’s what I’m thinking of. Where possible, of course, I am going to overlap with the Read Harder tasks. Every book listed is written by a woman, which makes sense because it’s the Reading Women Challenge.
An Author from Eastern Europe: Maybe Seeing People Off by Jana Beňová. Or There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Eastern European literature seems really fucking long, depressing, and boring from what I can tell. These two seem tolerable. There is a reason I’ve never read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov. Is it just because it’s frigid winter for like 10 months out of the year there? Is there not enough vodka? Too much vodka? I mean, FFS, I could hardly get through The Death of Ivan Ilyich and that wasn’t too bad, relatively speaking. But by the end of it, I wanted to swim in a barrel of vodka. Is vodka made in barrels? Whatever the fuck it’s made in, I wanted to swim in it.
A Book About Incarceration: Affinity by Sarah Waters! That should be awesome. Sarah Waters is awesome.
A Cookbook by a Woman of Color: Caribbean Potluck by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau. I will need to track down a Caribbean restaurant near me so I can also eat all the food.
A Book with a Protagonist Older than 50: Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman. I love Alice Hoffman.
A Book by a South American Author in Translation: Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac.
Reread a Favorite Book: Jeez. So many could go here.
A Memoir by an Indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal Woman: Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot. This has been on my radar forever.
A Book by a Neurodivergent Author: Maybe Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis (autism) or All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Sensory Integration Disorder). I think I own the Anders book, so probably I’ll read that.
A Crime Novel or Thriller in Translation: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I don’t know how this is really a crime novel, but it is listed as such on the Pan Macmillan site (Our Favourite Crime Novels in Translation) and I’ve had it for ages, so I’m gonna go with that.
A Young Adult Novel by a Latinx Author: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo.
A Poetry Collection by a Black Woman: Audre Lord seems popular, so I will try her writing. Or There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker.
A Book with a Biracial Protagonist: Caucasia by Danzy Senna. Probably there are a ton of books I will read that can cover this one, but on the off chance none of them do, I will try this one.
A Muslim Middle-Grade Novel: Shooting Kabul by NH Senzai. I got this for my daughter a while back because I wanted to read it.
A Book Featuring a Queer Love Story: Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.
About a Woman in Politics: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, or maybe Nefertiti by Michelle Moran. Or, because she’s fucking awesome, The Truths We Hold by Madam Vice President Kamala Harris!
A Book with a Cover Designed by a Woman: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (cover design by Abby Weintraub).
A Fantasy Novel by an Asian Author: These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong because I own it, but OMG there are so many I want to read!
A Short Story Collection by a Caribbean Author: The Pain Tree by Olive Senior seems like a great collection.
A Book by Alexis Wright (Waanyi Aboriginal): The Swan Book
A Book by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwean): Nervous Conditions
A Book by Leila Aboulela (Sundanese): The Translator
A Book by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese): The Memory Police sounds awesome.
For the past several years, I have eagerly awaited the posting of the new Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot. I think it was posted earlier than usual this year, which is awesome, or maybe my sense of time is just thoroughly fucked up. Either way, it’s here! And also as usual, I am going to try to complete the tasks by reading books by women and/or authors of color. Half the fun for me is to see what books are out there that can cover one or more of the tasks and make my list. Then I like to see, at the end of the year, what I actually read.
Here is what I’ve come up with for my 2021 RH list. What books do you have on your list?
I’m sure that everyone has heard the term “canceling” or “cancel culture” by now. This is the practice by which a person has their career damaged or even ended by others refusing to extend their support or patronage to them any longer. We’ve seen examples of this with Senator Al Franken, comedian Louis CK, actor Kevin Spacey, and singer Kanye West. Each of these people have, at one point or another, committed acts or made statements which are largely unacceptable to society. Certainly, there are some things that should not be forgiven or overlooked, and that absolutely must be called out. Sexual assault comes to mind. There can be no instance in which sexual assault is ever acceptable or tolerable. Other examples may be less clear-cut but still require an outcry. The world of publishing is no exception to this and has a long history of troublesome practices, just like many other industries.
Cancel culture actually has a longer lifespan than many people realize. It has its origins in the Civil Rights Movement and is related to boycotting, only instead of boycotting a business, one boycotts, or “cancels,” a person. This practice stems from a sense of powerlessness and inability to effect positive change, according to Anne Charity Hudley, the chair of linguistics of African America at UC Santa Barbara. She explains that if a person doesn’t have the ability to take action through political means, they can refuse to participate. She goes on to say that canceling someone is “a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you. … I may have no power but the power I have is to [ignore] you’” (Romano, 2019, para. 24). This approach seems to be effective only some of the time, however. When revelations about Michael Jackson and R. Kelly came to light, the instances of people streaming their music actually increased rather than the other way around. Roseanne Barr, who was fired from her show The Connors for making racist comments on Twitter, still has a career. So does Johnny Depp, although he was accused of domestic abuse.
Being able to refuse participation in the works of a person who is offensive to us is a powerful tool and can hopefully be used to help effect change. It highlights bad behavior and reminds us that, yes, people might like the music of R. Kelly (or Michael Jackson, Kanye, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, apparently ad infinitum), but surely there must be others whose music (or acting, art, writing, etc.) is just as good with the added benefit of them not being a terrible person. The issue is complex and fraught with emotion across the spectrum; I definitely don’t know the right way to approach the topic. For me personally, it seems to make a difference whether the person is still alive or not. Living people have the opportunity to correct their ways and make amends, however unlikely that may be; the departed can never learn from their actions or remediate. Regardless, depending on what the issue is, I admit that I can have a hard time separating the artist from their art.
How does cancel culture impact publishing? As with every other area of entertainment, publishing is not exempt from cancel culture in all its varieties. Very recently, beloved author JK Rowling made some comments on Twitter which appeared to be trans-phobic. This sparked outrage and even caused some to suggest insanely that Rowling isn’t the author of the Harry Potter series, removing her from the picture entirely. This seems, to me, to be overkill. Of course, Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books; her posting something unpalatable doesn’t magically rescind her authorship and bestow it upon another. What is more important is how others will react going forward. As Charity Hudley might suggest, readers do not have to participate in Rowling’s works, and they can choose not to buy her new books or even to refuse to read those that are already published. Since making the offending statements, Rowling has not returned to Twitter, proving, perhaps, that a healthy dose of embarrassment might be an effective way to force a person to reflect on their actions. For other authors, I think it is important to consider when they were writing. Mark Twain, for instance, would no doubt be considered a horrific and unrepentant racist by today’s standards; by the standards of his own time, however, he was quite progressive. Yet many people try to cancel him and his books for their use of racial slurs. Since Twain has been dead for over a century, there is no possible chance for him to learn new ways or correct past behavior. We have to accept that his language was common for the period in which he was writing, learn from it, and move on. Same for Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Mists of Avalon. Bradley was a celebrated fantasy author – and horrific child abuser. She died in 1999, and her daughter came forward in 2014 with allegations of molestation and abuse. Even though Bradley was long since dead when this news came to light, I confess that I have been having a very hard time separating the writer from her writing. Since she is deceased, I am not sure I should because she isn’t here to make amends; it is still a stain on one of my favorite literary experiences, and I have so far been unable to read The Mists of Avalon again since the abuse came to light. Author G. Willow Wilson, talking specifically of Bradley, tweeted that she can forgive artists for “falling short of their ideals, but not for CHILD ABUSE. Will never recommend any of her work again” (as cited in Flood, 2014, para. 8). I understand the sentiment and, for the most part, I tend to share it.
All this was a long-winded way to say that I have been thinking of my favorite authors and if I should still like their work and recommend it to others based on their past actions. Mark Twain, yes, I will always recommend him. He lived and wrote in a very different time and canceling him would be a detriment to literary and historical study. I also truly think that not engaging with problematic texts is often the wrong approach and doesn’t teach readers where the problems lie or how to address them in the future. But more modern writers? Do we cancel them, read and recommend them but with caveats, or shrug and figure one of the literary critics is bound to take them to task? You tell me. If your favorite author turned out to be a child abuser, rapist, domestic abuser, or something else, would you still read and recommend their work?
Below are some suggestions for read-alikes for favorite authors who turned out to be vile humans.
If you liked:
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (child molester), you might prefer instead The Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Woolley, the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick, or the Merlin Chronicles by Mary Stewart.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (racist, against Native Americans in particular), you may like to try Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Mailhot, There There by Tommy Orange, or The Round House by Louise Erdrich.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (raging homophobe), you might prefer Old Man’s War, the titular first book of the series by John Scalzi, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, the Vatta’s War series by Elizabeth Moon, The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, or The Martian by Andy Weir.
The Cthulhu Mythos by HP Lovecraft (racist), you might prefer anything at all by Neil Gaiman, The Only Good Indians and After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, or Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (racist, imperialist), you might prefer The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, the Broken Earth series by NK Jemisin, The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (racist, imperialist), you might prefer Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, or just about anything by Sonali Dev.
Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (who, depending on who you ask, is transphobic), you may prefer An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, the Tensorate series by JY Yang, or The Merry Spinster by Mallory Ortberg.
Flood, A. (2014, June 27). SFF community reeling after Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter accuses her of abuse. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/27/sff-community-marion-zimmer-bradley-daughter-accuses-abuse.
Romano, A. (2019, Dec. 30). Why we can’t stop fighting about cancel culture. Vox.com, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.
I’m holed up in our cabin in the woods, working on my book. These are just a few of the things I’ve read in the past week. I need to format it right. Send halp and booze.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green, Martino Publishing, 2011.
Brewer, Jessica. “Etheldreda: Queen, Abbess, Saint.” Medievalists.net, 23 Feb. 2019, http://www.medievalists.net/2019/02/etheldreda-queen-abbess-saint/.
Cartwright, Mark. “The Daily Life of Medieval Nuns.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 10 Mar. 2020, http://www.ancient.eu/article/1298/the-daily-life-of-medieval-nuns/.
Clark, Christine G. “Women’s Rights in Early England.” BYU Law Review, 1995 March; 207(1): 206-236.
Crosby, Everett U. “Children of the Middle Ages.” Review of Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme. The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2002, vol 78 issue 4, p. 766-773.
Cybulskie, Danièle. “Royalit: What Did Medieval Kings Read?” Medievalists.net, 14 Apr. 2018, http://www.medievalists.net/2016/04/royalit-what-did-medieval-kings-read/.
Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God. New York: Random House, 2019.
Dragnea, Mihai. “The Influence of the Bible on Medieval Women’s Literacy.” Medievalists.net, 14 July 2014, http://www.medievalists.net/2014/07/the-influence-of-the-bible-on-medieval-womens-literacy/.
Dresner, Samuel H. “Barren Rachel.” Judaism. Fall91, Vol. 40 Issue 4, p 442.
FitzGerald, Brian D. “Medieval Theories of Education: Hugh of St. Victor and John of Salisbury.” Oxford Review of Education, vol 36 issue 5, October 2010, p. 575-588.
Friehs, Julia Teresa. “What Did People Read in the Middle Ages? Courtly and Middle-Class Reading Matter.” Die Welt Der Habsburger, http://www.habsburger.net/en/chapter/what-did-people-read-middle-ages-courtly-and-middle-class-reading-matter.
Frijhoff, Willem. “Historian’s Discovery of Childhood.’ Paedagogica Historica Vol. 48, No. 1, February 2012, 11–29.
Gordon, Edward E. Centuries of Tutoring: A Perspective on Childhood Education. 1988. Loyola University, PhD Dissertation.
Green Richard. “Introduction.” In Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, translated by Richard Green, Martino Publishing, 2011.
Guillelmi de Conchis’s Dragmaticon. Translated by Italo Ronca, University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.
Harvey, Katherine. “Episcopal Virginity in MEdieval England.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 2017 May ; 26(2): 273–293.
John of Salisbury (1962 ) The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury: a twelfth-century defense of the verbal and logical arts of the trivium. Translated by D. McGarry. Berkeley, University of California.
Kuefler, Mathew S. “‘A Wyred Existence’: Attitudes Towards Children in Anglo-Saxon England.” Journal of Social History. Summer91, Vol. 24 Issue 4, p823-834.
Lewis, Katherine J. “Model Girls? Virgin-Martyrs and the Training of Young Women in Late Medieval England.” In Young Medieval Women, edited by Katherine J. Lewis, Menuge Noël James, and Kim M. Phillips. St. Martins Press, 1999: 25-46.
Lewis, Mary, Fiona Shapland, and Rebecca Watts. “On the Threshold of Adulthood: A New Approach for the Use of Maturation Indicators to Assess Puberty in Adolescents from Medieval England.” 2016. American Journal of Human Biology, 28:48-56.
Otten, Willemien. “Christianity’s Content: (Neo)Platonism in the Middle Ages, Its Theoretical and Theological Appeal.” Numen 63 (2016): 245-270.
Potkay, Monica Brzezinski and Regula Meyer Evitt. Minding the Body: Women and Literature in the Middle Ages, 800-1500. London: Twayne’s Women and Literature Series, 1997.
Riches, Sam and Miriam Gill. “Saints in Medieval Society.” Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, http://www.york.ac.uk/projects/pilgrimage/content/med_saint.html.
Riches, Sam and Miriam Gill. “Saints in Medieval Society.” Pilgrims and Pilgrimage, http://www.york.ac.uk/projects/pilgrimage/content/med_saint.html.
Salih, Sarah. “Saints and Sanctity in Medieval England.” The British Library, 4 Jan. 2018, http://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/saints-and-sanctity-in-medieval-england#.
Shapland, Fiona, Mary Lewis, and Rebecca Watts. “Lives and Deaths of Young Medieval Women.” Medieval Archaeology, vol. 59, 2015, pp. 272-289.
Stevenson, Cait. “The Holy Spirit in Female Form: Medieval Tales of Faith and Heresy.” Medievalists.net, 29 Aug. 2019, http://www.medievalists.net/2019/08/the-holy-spirit-in-female-form-medieval-tales-of-faith-and-heresy/.
Vauchez, André. Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: University Press; 1997.
Vincent, Nicholas. “The Great Lost Library of England’s Medieval Kings?: Royal Use and Ownership of Books, 1066-1272.” 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, edited by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick, British Library, 2013, pp. 73-112.
Wilkinson, Louise. “Isabella, First Wife of King John.” Magna Carta Trust, https://magnacarta800th.com/schools/biographies/women-of-magna-carta/isabella-of-gloucester/
So in my day job, one of my roles is to produce the quarterly digest for my college. I work with an amazing team of writers and designers and what we’ve done has really grown over the past couple years. I just wanted to share this with the interwebs, because I am proud of my team and their work.
Cover art by Brad Carroll.
Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)
Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.
More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.
Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues. The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.
When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained,
I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t. As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.
Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us
accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.
Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.
Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays:
Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader.
Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.
Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies.
Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019).
Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.
Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014.
Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.
Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.
*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.
Judith Starkston’s PRIESTESS OF ISHANA is available free on Amazon Oct 2-6 in anticipation of the Oct 14 launch of the next book in the series, Sorcery in Alpara. An award-winning historical fantasy, Priestess of Ishana draws on the true-life of a remarkable but little-known Hittite queen who ruled over one of history’s most powerful empires.
A curse, a conspiracy and the clash of kingdoms. A defiant priestess confronts her foes, armed only with ingenuity and forbidden magic.
“What George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones did for the War of the Roses, Starkston has done for the forgotten Bronze Age Hittite civilization. Mystery, romance, political intrigue, and magic…” -Amalia Carosella, author of Helen of Sparta