Archive | August 2014

One Month to Go!

Sparkers comes out one month from today, and yesterday I received a copy of the finished book in the mail! You might be tired of seeing this cover by now, but this time that shimmery jacket is on an actual hardcover Sparkers and not a book on the history of English spelling. The cover of the book itself is a lovely midnight blue, and where the jacket spine has an eye, the book has a snowflake!




Well, okay, that is Spell It Out, disguised as Sparkers, on top.

Good Balderdash Words

Balderdash is one of my favorite games. It works as follows: one player reads aloud an obscure word of English that nobody knows. All the other players make up a definition for this word and write it down on a scrap of paper. Meanwhile, the word reader writes down the true definition of the word. She then collects all the proposed definitions, slips in the real one, and reads them all aloud. Everyone votes on which definition they think is the real one. Players earn points if they guess the correct definition of the word or if other players vote for their invented definitions. Balderdash is sold as a board game, with cards listing rare English words, but it can be played with nothing more than a dictionary (the larger the better).

Balderdash is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. There’s a fine line between a made-up definition that is amusing but still plausible and one that is completely outrageous. And sometimes the real definition is almost unbelievable. The hardest part of the game is probably reading all the proposed definitions aloud with a straight face when you know which one is real.

It’s very satisfying listening to other players take your utterly fictitious definition seriously, and it’s amazing to realize how many words of English (someone’s English, somewhere, sometime) you have never encountered before. In my experience, good Balderdash words tend to be of Germanic origin, as words with Greek or Latin roots can often be at least partially deciphered (consider haffle vs. xanthic) (okay, maybe most people don’t know that xantho– is a prefix from Greek meaning “yellow,” but I honestly think more 21st century speakers of American English know that than have ever heard the word haffle).

Anyway, the point of all this is that I learned two new words this past week that immediately struck me as being excellent Balderdash words.

Wapentake (n.) : a subdivision of certain shires or counties, esp in the Midlands and North of England, corresponding to the hundred in other shires

I stumbled upon this word by serendipity. I finished reading the YA fantasy novel Witchlanders (which is so, so good!) and went to learn more about the author, Lena Coakley. She has a fondness for the Brontës, so I looked them up on Wikipedia to remind myself of all the siblings in that family. There, I learned that the Brontës had lived in something called the West Riding of Yorkshire, which sounded so romantic I had to go look that up, whereupon I discovered the subsection “Ancient Divisions: Wapentakes.” It almost doesn’t look like a real English word, right?

The etymology of wapentake is pretty fascinating too. It originally comes from Old Norse and literally means “weapon take”. It might have referred to a sort of census by weaponry and/or a practice of voting by brandishing weapons. It’s interesting to think of dividing land into units according to a set number of available swords (that is, sword-wielding individuals). One could imagine sparsely populated areas having larger wapentakes and densely populated areas having smaller ones. I’m not sure that’s how it worked at all; I’m making this up. But it would be a good worldbuilding element, wouldn’t it?  

Spline (n.): a long, flexible strip of wood or the like, used in drawing curves

This word came up in Baayen’s Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics, a textbook I’m working through this summer (joy!). Specifically, it came up in the context of restricted cubic splines, which are functions that can be used to capture nonlinear relationships in a regression model while avoiding overfitting and its associated problems. Right. Basically, they’re functions for modeling curves, which is why they’re named after a physical tool used to draw curves.

Spline is an ideal Balderdash word because it looks perfectly English (it complies with English phonotactics, or rules about syllable structure and what sounds can appear next to each other) but I had never heard it before reading it in my statistics textbook. It looks like it could mean anything: a type of plant graft, a kind of fishing lure, a bird… Spline’s origin is given as East Anglian dialect, so, Germanic again.

Here, then, are two great Balderdash words! Only, now you know what they mean, which defeats the purpose of the game.

Mixed Race in Victorian London

I just read the first two books in Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series, A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower. Y. S. Lee is a Singapore-born Canadian author, and these novels are mysteries set in 1850s London. The protagonist, Mary Quinn, is the daughter of an Irish woman and a Chinese sailor. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read almost no books starring a half-white, half-Chinese character, that is, a character like me, so I was intrigued by The Agency books.

Mary’s father is a Lascar, an Asian sailor who works on British ships. I hadn’t heard of the Lascars before reading A Spy in the House, and I appreciated Lee’s illuminating a perhaps little-remembered aspect of British imperial history and the demographics of mid 19th century London. By the time the story begins, though, Mary’s parents are both dead, and she is working for an all-female detective agency (improbable, I know). Though she can’t conceal her “exotic” (oh, boy) appearance, she keeps her racial background a secret from everyone, including her employers. She passes as black Irish or allows people to assume she has some Spanish or Italian blood.

Mary claims not to be ashamed of being Chinese, but she doesn’t want anyone to find out about her father because she fears (probably with good reason) that people will think her inferior or of lesser intelligence if they know. Thus she’s uncomfortable in situations where people dwell on her looks or when Lascars are brought up (the first mystery involves shipping and a home for aged Lascars) or when she must interact with other Chinese people in London. She also seems ashamed of her inability to speak Cantonese when other Chinese characters address her in it.

Mary calls herself a “half-caste,” a term which is now considered derogatory. I first learned this word from the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I watched in a high school world history class. It also appears in Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah, an entertaining book about a group of children in China who train in martial arts and rescue American soldiers during World War II. The protagonist is Chinese, but a couple of her companions are of mixed Chinese and European heritage, and I recall them being direct about the challenges this creates for them in China and even talking about their race with the American soldiers.

Mary’s sense of, and fear of, belonging nowhere is likely a familiar one to most mixed race people. She keeps her family history a secret among the English but still can’t avoid people questioning her about her appearance and heritage. She believes if people knew the truth, she wouldn’t be accepted in white society anymore, perhaps not even by her beloved employers/former teachers. At the same time, she doesn’t believe she’d fit in in the Chinese community either, in part because she doesn’t speak Chinese. In The Body at the Tower, while disguised as an errand boy, Mary is invited by a Chinese servant girl to have dinner (a proper dinner, with rice) with the girl’s family. Feeling that it’s too late to return to that community and that she can’t live in both worlds at once, Mary rejects the invitation.

While Mary can pass as, if not fully English, then at least not-Chinese among white Londoners, the Chinese characters can see immediately that she has Chinese heritage. This is probably a result of experience: most of the English have probably met very few Chinese people, while the Chinese Londoners are attuned to other East Asians because there are so few of them in the city and may also have seen other children of Chinese sailors and white women in their small community. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my life, though it doesn’t always hold. Some white people tell me they noticed I was Asian right away while others notice something and privately wonder “what” I am for a while until they decide to ask me, often ineptly. I have also met Asian people who were surprised to learn I had Chinese heritage. In my experience, the only people who can reliably tell I’m hapa* right away are other hapa people. We’re generally pretty good at identifying each other.

In this vein, the part of Mary’s experience that most resonated with me was how people are eternally inquisitive about her appearance and how she can never be sure how people perceive her. For me, this is the number one most disconcerting thing about being multiracial. I don’t mind telling people about my background, but ignorant/borderline rude questions and coded language get old. And though I, unlike Mary, don’t have to pass as anything, it can be weird to be somewhere and not know whether everyone else in the room realizes there is a Chinese-American among them.

Something nice about The Agency books is that their covers feature a model who is both Asian and white! That’s partly why I finally checked them out from the library; seeing the covers reminded me that these were the historical fiction novels about a mixed race girl. I don’t think I ever saw the covers without knowing about the race of the heroine, so I see a hapa girl on them, but interestingly, there has been some discussion of the covers online. Some bloggers have complained (mildly) that the model looked more like a Latina or a light-skinned Black girl than a hapa girl. Others even seemed to think she looked white. This concern is understandable given that there have been cases of egregious whitewashing on YA covers, but it also reveals that people have a certain conception of what a Chinese/white girl should look like, and the fact is, hapa people can have a wide range of phenotypes. Y. S. Lee has even commented on this herself and has posted behind-the-scenes pictures from the cover photo shoots on her website. She wants her readers to know that the model’s heritage is true to Mary’s.

Anyway, I’m probably going to read the next book in the series because I want to find out if Mary reveals her Chinese heritage to her love interest!

*Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning half, part, or mixed and is used to refer to mixed race people. In the continental U.S., it’s come to mean specifically a mixed race person with Asian heritage (see Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project). I like the word hapa, but I’ve also heard that some people object to its having been appropriated outside its Hawaiian context, so I use it gingerly. 

Musical Detection

I’ve recently discovered some fascinating connections between songs, and I can’t help sharing them with you. This post will probably be as esoteric as that series about The American Songbag. Hooray!

First, I was introduced to Thomas Morley’s “Sing We and Chant It” thanks to Rachel Hartman’s blog. Listening to this English madrigal, I was struck by how much it resembled a hymn tune whose name I always forget. I poked around and found the hymn I was thinking of: In Dir Ist Freude (In Thee Is Joy, or, as the English text goes, “In thee is gladness”). I first remember coming across this tune when I was studying abroad in France and attending the Eglise Réformée de Grenoble. (Aside: It seemed like half the hymns we sang there were from the Genevan Psalter, and they all sounded alike and were kind of boring…) One day, back in the States, the music director of my church played this hymn as an organ postlude. I recognized the melody and asked her what it was, and she told me it was In Dir Ist Freude. You can listen to a brass ensemble version of the tune here. Its resemblance to “Sing We and Chant It” is pretty easy to hear. 

Apparently, this tune was first published by Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi in 1591 with the title “L’innamorato” and a secular text about love (“A lieta vita / Amor ci invita…”). However, Gastoldi’s melody may have been inspired by German sources. The tune was then printed by Johannes Lindemann in 1594 with the sacred “In dir ist Freude” text. It seems “Sing We and Chant It” is an arrangement and embellishment of Gastoldi’s song. Also, J. S. Bach composed an organ chorale prelude for In Dir Ist Freude (BWV 615).  

Second, I discovered the wonderful song “Friendship” on Tim Eriksen’s album Every Sound Below. The title sounded like that of a shape note tune. (There is a tune in The Sacred Harp called “Friendship,” but that one is entirely different.) Anyway, the tune of “Friendship” seemed very familiar to me, and I couldn’t rest until I figured out why. I thought it was a melody I myself had played on the piano, and not that long ago. Given that my repertoire of piano pieces is very small, there weren’t that many possibilities.

I did some research on the tune “Friendship” to try to find out why it might sound familiar to me. From various sources, I learned that the lovely text Tim Eriksen sings (“Friendship, to ev’ry willing mind, / Opens a heavenly treasure”) is attributed to a Mr. Bidwell of Connecticut and was published in the Philadelphia Songster in 1789. The tune is attributed to one G. Cook. “Friendship” was a popular 18th century song that found its way into shape note books in the early 19th century and was published, among other places, in The Hesperian Harp (1848).

The melody is in the tenor line, the third one down

The melody is in the tenor line, the third one down

So, back to my suspicions that I had played this tune on the piano. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the piece I was remembering was the very first one in a collection of easy Handel works my mother had given me for Christmas. I asked her to photograph the music for me, and as it turned out, this Gavotte in C major was the one I had been thinking of. If you read music, you can see for yourself that the melody is very close to that of “Friendship,” and you can also listen to someone playing it on the piano here.

I was very pleased with myself for having discovered this connection. But then I found this post by Rachel Wells Hall, a Philadelphia Sacred Harp singer and one of the authors of the new Shenandoah Harmony, and I realized someone else had already written all about it. It turns out the gavotte above is the same as the chorus “Viva la face, viva l’amor” from Handel’s 1736 opera Atalanta. And what’s more, “Friendship” is in The Shenandoah Harmony, so I have the music!

Third, I heard the song “La solette et le limandin” by the Breton band Tri Yann on Pandora. I noticed that it sounded rather like a song I’d learned in elementary school, whose tune I vaguely remembered was the same as the Israeli national anthem. I looked up the national anthem, which is called “Hatikvah,” and sure enough, it was the tune I was thinking of. The words I learned in school began “Autour de la flamme quand le jour se meurt / Nos chants proclament un monde meilleur” (“Around the flame as the day dies / Our singing proclaims a better world”–apologies for the clunky translation). Funnily enough, Googling these lyrics reveals that this is a song from Lac du Bois, the French summer camp in northern Minnesota I attended once, but I definitely learned it at school, not at camp.

In any case, I tried to unearth some background on the Tri Yann song to see if any connection to “Hatikvah” was acknowledged, but instead I read that “La solette et le limandin” bore a close resemblance to a 16th century Italian song called “Il Ballo di Mantova”! Not what I was expecting. The Italian song was composed by Giuseppino del Biado, and its original text begins “Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo”. As it turns out, though, “Il Ballo di Mantova” has quite the legacy. It was quoted in Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poem Die Moldau (Vltava), which I have played, and it inspired “Hatikvah” (possibly through the intermediary of a Romanian folksong–it sounds like the Italian tune spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance). A version of it is even in John Playford’s The Dancing Master (1657), under the title “An Italian Rant,” so one could do an English country dance to this tune!

Sparkers Jacket

I received a sample of the final dust jacket for Sparkers yesterday! Here it is being modeled by David Crystal’s Spell it Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling.



Thinking On The Page

I recently came across Theresa MacPhail’s article “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation” (thanks to someone else posting it, but now I’ve forgotten who–sorry!). It’s obviously relevant to me as a graduate student, and will be even more so in a few years. However, what struck me most was that, with a few exceptions, if you replaced the word “dissertation” with “novel” throughout, you would have a great article on how to write a book. Not surprisingly, a lot of the same advice applies: the only way to finish is to write, write every day, accept that you will have good and bad writing days, reconcile yourself to producing a terrible first draft.

One of MacPhail’s ideas in particular lingered with me. It was this: “Writing is thinking.” More precisely, “the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.” Now, I think there’s more than one way in which this can be true. I believe MacPhail is talking about the actual drafting of the dissertation since she mentions that you should have the necessary research done before beginning a writing session. I would draw a distinction between a brainstorming type of thinking through writing and a drafting type.

The former is freer and more haphazard; it’s batting around ideas for a term paper or free writing about a character’s background in hopes of figuring out exactly what role she should play in the plot. For me, it’s also deliberate: I need to come up with a paper topic or solve a plot problem, so I set myself the task of writing down all the possibilities until something feels right.

The latter (the drafting type) is more controlled, or at least the writing part is (I’m not sure my thinking is ever controlled). I’m in the midst of actually writing the paper or the novel. I’m using complete sentences and ostensibly producing material intended for a professor or a reader’s eyes. At the same time, it’s also more spontaneous because I’m not actively trying to think on paper. I’m actually trying to write a real draft. But maybe I reach a certain point in my analysis and suddenly notice an implication I hadn’t thought of before and quickly discuss it in a few sentences before the idea slips away. Voilà: my paper makes a point I hadn’t originally planned on making. Or maybe I’m writing a conversation between two characters and a plot hole occurs to me, so I have one character say to the other, “Wait, how can X do Y?” And either the other character replies with an ingenious solution that just popped into my head, or it’s a reminder to me when I go back and reread to fix this problem.

The “writing is thinking” slogan rang especially true for me because I’m currently writing the first draft of a novel and I realized I absolutely am thinking on the page. It’s making for a long, meandering rough draft, but that’s what always happens to me. I refuse to do anything but move forward, so my thinking remains in the draft until I embark on a revision. Thus, for instance, I have a character telling another, “You’re probably going to have to skip school to get into the government archive because it’s only open during business hours,” and then a few lines later saying, “Oh, wait, actually historians can make appointments, so we’ll get ourselves a weekend appointment instead.” That was just me changing my mind about logistics in mid-scene.

Elsewhere, I have characters expressing their feelings at great and unnecessary length, just so I can explore the subtleties of their emotions for myself. Ultimately, I’ll distill their ridiculous monologues into a sentence or two that conveys exactly what I need it to. Also, there are places where characters remark to each other that something doesn’t make sense or seems implausible. These are really thinly disguised messages to myself about the state of the plot. Thinking on the page helps me get through the first draft and lays the groundwork for the first revision, but in the end, once all that thinking has gone into shaping the final manuscript, the thinking itself should be gone from the novel.