Archive | May 2016

Nüshu, Laotong, and Gemaecce

The other day, I was pondering how two characters in a new story I’m working on might communicate secretly with each other through an exchange of notes. It occurred to me that they might use a women’s script. I knew that there was a real women’s script derived from Chinese characters, so I looked it up again. It’s nüshu (女書), and it was used by women in Jiangyong County in Hunan Province.


Nüshu text (Source)

In the course of reading the Wikipedia page on nüshu, I came across the concept of laotong (老同). In the nüshu article, laotong are described as “sworn sisters.” On the Wikipedia page for laotong, it’s described as a formal relationship/bond between two women, established in childhood or even before birth and meant to endure for a lifetime. Like nüshu, the custom of laotong is from Hunan Province. I was immediately struck by the practice, and particularly by its resemblance to the concept of gemaecce that Nicola Griffith developed for her novel Hild. In Hild, which is set in Anglo-Saxon England, a girl is formally paired with a gemaecce, another girl who will be her friend/companion for life. As far as I know, there is no evidence that women in Anglo-Saxon England actually had gemaecce, but laotong are real. So much story fodder here!

The Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest

I devoted most of last weekend to musical activities. Saturday was the LA Regional All-Day Singing at Angels Gate in San Pedro. Many songs were sung, the requisite photos of the Korean Friendship Bell were taken, and Robert’s rules of order were much abused. We had visiting singers from Colorado and Georgia!

On Sunday, the LA Sacred Harp singers held workshops at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival, which is…exactly what the name says. You can compete in different levels on fiddle, banjo, voice, and other instruments, or you can just listen to music, jam, dance, and check out the vendors and exhibitors. In the morning, I got a ride to the festival with two Sacred Harp singers who have been involved in the LA folk scene since the 1970s. One of them called herself a lifelong folkie and talked about Pete Seeger (!) performing at her Jewish camp (?) way back when.

The festival was held at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. I found out at the regional singing that the festival site was a Western movie set and that we would be singing in Chin’s, the Chinese laundry. Okay, then.


This is the building in which we sang. There was nothing identifying it as the Chinese laundry, though it was called Chin’s in the festival program.


It really was a Western movie set though.

We did three hours of singing: a one-hour workshop with explicit teaching, a one-hour workshop for which the ostensible theme was “minor key tunes mentioning death” (contrary to popular belief, this does not in fact encompass all Sacred Harp tunes), and a one-hour regular singing. A decent number of festival attendees dropped by to listen and even to sing.



I had brought along my thrift shop fiddle on the off chance that I’d have the opportunity to do some jamming. I left the death-themed workshop early to catch the second half of the Scottish Fiddlers of LA’s performance in the Eucalyptus Grove. When I reached the grove, they were about to start a set of two jigs. I recognized the director, whose Welsh fiddle class I was in at Camp Kiya last summer, as well as a couple other members who also went to camp. To my astonishment, after the jigs, they played the exact same set of four Welsh tunes we performed at the campers’ concert at the end of Camp Kiya! I’d left my fiddle in Chin’s; otherwise, I would’ve been tempted to join in.


The Scottish Fiddlers of LA playing Welsh tunes! You can barely see the guy in the kilt and St. Andrew’s cross sporran playing the bass clarinet…

They closed with a pair of waltzes, and then I went to say hi to the director and one of the other fiddlers I met at camp last year. It turned out they were about to start a fiddlers’ jam right there in the Eucalyptus Grove. I was torn, since the regular Sacred Harp singing was about to begin. I walked back to Chin’s, but then I decided to grab my fiddle and return to the jam session for a handful of tunes. I figured it might be my only chance to play with anyone (and I was right).

They were playing the Swallowtail Jig when I returned, so I joined in on that. Then they switched to Morrison’s Jig, which I also knew. The next few tunes I didn’t know and couldn’t really pick up by ear fast enough to play properly. Then one of the fiddlers suggested Road to Lisdoonvarna, except suddenly she couldn’t remember how it began. By some miracle, I managed to pull the first phrase out of my memory, and then we were off. I’m not sure if I’d ever played that tune on violin before; I definitely had on cello. Anyway, if this jam session taught me anything, it’s that I know tunes in E minor (or E dorian). After Road to Lisdoonvarna, I headed back to the singing.

There was a brief contra dance late in the afternoon that I went to, but it wasn’t anything special. What was special was this hurdy-gurdy trio that played for hours in a pavilion tucked away near the saloon! One of the hurdy-gurdyists let some guy turn the crank of his instrument for one tune, and throughout the day I kept dropping by in hopes that they’d let me try to play a hurdy-gurdy. Alas, they did not offer.



In Which I Go to a Magic Show

On Sunday evening, my friend Isabelle and I went to In & Of Itself, a magic show at the Geffen Playhouse. Glenn Kaino, the conceptual artist for whom we created Lunar French got us tickets, since he was the show’s producer. The performer was magician Derek DelGaudio.

Before the show began, we joined the crowd milling around a wall hung with cards that read “I am a…”. The blank was filled with many different options, and the cards were arranged in alphabetical order. A sign on an easel instructed us to choose the card that represented how we wished to be seen. We stood there for a while, amused, and then I overheard the usher at the door to the theater telling someone that choosing a card was a condition of entry. We started to look a little harder. The choices ranged from “Gaffer” (Isabelle had to explain to me that that was a glassmaker; after looking the word up, though, I don’t think that was the definition foremost in the card makers’ minds) to “Flautist,” from “Nonconformist” to “Foreigner.” There was no “Writer,” but there was “Novelist.” I finally decided on “Cellist.” Isabelle picked “Well-Wisher.”

We were admitted into the theater, where another usher tore off the identity end of our cards, leaving us with “I am” stubs. She piled the cards in a neat stack. Isabelle and I found ourselves sitting in the front row of the very intimate theater. The seats filled, and eventually the usher put the tall stack of cards on the table on stage.

If there’s any chance you’re going to see this show, you should perhaps stop reading. Spoilers for magic shows? Is that a thing?

The set consisted of a wall that looked like it was constructed of gray planks. There were six windows cut into it, with different objects in each one. One contained a golden automaton whose face appeared to be that of…could it be? Frantz Fanon? It was the twin of the Pierrot figure in the moon automaton.

Derek DelGaudio walked on stage and began to tell us a story about a man playing Russian roulette. After finishing the story, he went to one of the windows and took out the half-empty bottle that was sitting in it. He peeled the label off the bottle, folded it into a paper boat, and moved the boat along the back of a chair. A light projected the shadows of the chair and the boat onto the wall, making it look like the boat was bobbing on the ocean. Then he stuck the boat into the back of the chair somehow, so it perched there. He took the bottle and did more shadow games, until at last he passed the bottle in front of the paper boat on the chair. When he lifted the bottle again, the paper boat was floating on the liquid inside of it.

Next, he asked for a volunteer who was willing to come back to the next show, which was to be on Tuesday. Somebody eventually volunteered. Then he called down the volunteer from the last show, who came on stage with a journal in which he’d recorded everything he could remember from the previous show, up until when he’d left. DelGaudio read a few words aloud from his journal entry and then sent him back to his seat.

There followed some nice card tricks. Then DelGaudio told another story–presumably autobiographical?–about growing up in Colorado with his lesbian mothers. He stood next to the window in which a brick was stuck halfway through a pane of cracked glass. Apparently someone threw a brick into their house. After telling the story, he placed the brick, which was painted gold, on the table on which he’d done the card tricks and surrounded it with a little house of cards. He asked the audience to supply the name of an intersection in Los Angeles. We came up with Wilshire & Sepulveda. Then he said the brick was now at that intersection, and he blew down the house of cards to reveal that the brick had vanished.

After the show, I did some poking around online and discovered that people had taken photos of golden bricks found at various intersections around LA. Intersections from previous shows, no doubt. I haven’t been to Wilshire & Sepulveda yet to check myself.

At this point, DelGaudio asked the volunteer who said he’d come back to the next show to leave. Before he left, though, he helped DelGaudio choose a random(-ish?) audience member. DelGaudio invited her on stage and asked her what card she’d chosen. She said, “Dapper Dan man.” (I had to look that up later. And I’ve even seen Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?.) I’m telling this slightly out of order, but DelGaudio climbed a ladder to one of the higher windows, in which lots of envelopes were sitting in a matrix of cubbies. He chose about six letters and presented them to the young woman on stage, pointing out that they were all addressed to him and had some relation written on the back such as “Dad” or “Lawyer.” He said she could pick one, so she picked the one that said “Dad.” He had her imagine some letter-writing scenarios and then finally had her open the envelope.

She slid her finger under the flap, unfolded the letter inside…and sort of curled up on herself in her chair, covering her mouth with her hand. She exclaimed, stared at DelGaudio, almost started crying. Then she read the letter aloud. It was addressed to Zoe (“my name,” she said) and mentioned a family pet and her brother, both by name. It was from her dad. Given her reaction, I imagine the handwriting must have been right. We all stared. This was easily the most impressive moment in the show. I spent a little time later wondering how it all might have worked, but not too much time. I don’t really want to figure it out. Though if I were that young woman, the first thing I would’ve done upon leaving the show is call my dad.

After that stunning bit of magic, DelGaudio asked anyone in the audience who had chosen a card because it was genuinely how they wanted to be seen to stand up. Probably about half the audience rose. Isabelle did. After a few moments’ reflection, I decided “cellist” was not actually how I wanted to be seen, so I didn’t stand.

DelGaudio began going down the front row, telling people what card they had chosen. I forgot to mention: he had moved the stack of cards from the table onto one side of an antique metal scale in one of the other windows early in the show. They hadn’t moved since. There were impressed murmurs as he got the first few people’s cards right. I waited for him to get to Isabelle since I knew what her card had been and also that she, if no one else in the theater, was not a plant. DelGaudio got to her and said, “Well-wisher.”

After doing the first couple of rows, he told people to sit down if he’d gotten their card right. Everyone in the first few rows sat down. He then continued to name the cards of every other person standing. There were probably well over fifty people. One by one, they sat down as he named the correct card. After the letter from dad, this was the next most impressive bit.

And that was the final act. Or almost. He turned back to the set, which lit up. What were once windows had become posters, and these fell to the ground, leaving a blank wall behind them. The stage floor rose up, revealing a mirror on the underside that showed us our own reflection. And that was the end.


This past weekend was YALLWEST, a YA book and author festival that’s the West Coast version of YALLFEST, which takes place in South Carolina. YALLWEST was held at Santa Monica High School, which is ENORMOUS. Seriously, it’s the size of a small college campus, with separate buildings for Humanities, Science, etc. It even has Harry Potter-esque houses. Also, the abbreviation for the school is Samohi, which looks like a made-up word in a phonology paper.

I was only able to go on Saturday. There were hordes of people and long lines for everything: book purchases, ARC giveaways, food trucks, panels… It made it a bit overwhelming. I mostly skirted the lines and just attended the panels that looked most interesting. The panels were pretty big, so I saw a lot of authors, which was fun. Here are some impressions from each panel I went to:

Heroes & Villains (The Chicken & The Egg)

Sabaa Tahir (moderator), Victoria Aveyard, Leigh Bardugo [I’ve read her Shadow and Bone], Gwenda Bond, Ransom Riggs [I’ve read his Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and have been meaning to finish the trilogy for ages], Kiersten White [I’ve read Mind Games], and Neal Shusterman

  • Leigh Bardugo suggested that heroes and villains (who they are, what they want) can flow from worldbuilding.
  • An audience member asked the panelists if they journaled. Neal Shusterman said, “I journal like I diet.” (I’ve kept a daily journal since December of my senior year of high school. It’s become kind of a compulsion. Also, the filled journals accumulate.)
  • Leigh Bardugo said something which I’ll paraphrase from memory as, “No matter what you do/what your passion is, there’ll always be days when it feels like a job that you’re not good at.” This was sort of reassuring for both writing and linguistics.

Write What You Know–Or What You Want?

Stephanie Kuehn (moderator) [I’ve read all her books and think she’s great], John Corey Whaley [I loved Where Things Come Back], Brandy Colbert [I just saw her at AWP!], Alex Gino, Sarah Burnes, Jo Volpe, Erin Stein, and Richard Abate

  • So I went to this panel after lunch, and I got there early since I’d skipped the noon panel slot. I was first in line (insofar as there was a line), and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, knitting my cable scarf, when who should appear in the hallway but Sarah McCarry, a.k.a. The Rejectionist, author of the Metamorphoses Trilogy! This wasn’t her panel; she was just attending. I tried not to stare in awe as she joined the end of the line.
  • Speaking of recognizing people, I’m also pretty sure I saw a girl in the audience who was sitting next to me at a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books last year. I guess my memory for faces is better than I thought.
  • The topic of this panel was a little unclear (even to the panelists), but the conversation turned to diversity and #ownvoices pretty fast.
  • In the lightning round, Stephanie Kuehn asked everyone to name “the most interesting emotion.” I thought this was a fascinating question, so I recorded everyone’s responses: JCW: sadness; BC: anger; RA: fear; ES: rage; AG: forgiveness; JV: jealousy; SB: depression; SK: spite.
  • Joanna Volpe, describing what’s compelling about middle grade fiction, said something along the lines of, “MG protagonists are like I can change the world! and YA protagonists are like No, I can’t, I guess I just have to find my place in it.”
  • Another lightning round question was “the last book that made you cry,” which opened the door to the panelists telling other panelists which of their books had made them cry, discussing whether they cried over books at all, and sharing stories of crying over books on public transportation.

Love in the Time of Made-Up Worlds

Gretchen McNeil (moderator), Kami Garcia, Arwen Elys Dayton [I remember seeing her at C2E2 a year ago], Josie Angelini, Jessica Khoury, Jodi Meadows, Amy Tintera, and Scott Speer

  • I didn’t take any notes at this panel, but I remember a few things: Arwen Elys Dayton’s parents named her after the Lord of the Rings character. Jessica Khoury has a Syrian grandfather.
  • Someone, I can’t remember who now, said she actually felt like writing secondary world fantasy was easier than writing fiction set in the real world because she could control everything and didn’t have to worry about getting facts right. I feel exactly the same way. Of course, you end up having to do a lot of research to write fantasy too, but somehow it seems less daunting than trying to write a story set in the real world in any place or time you haven’t lived in yourself.
  • Speaking of fantasy research, an audience member asked the panelists what the most important thing to research was, and one of them (Jessica Khoury, I think) said, “Horses.”
  • I finished knitting my scarf during this panel!

Safe Spaces in YA

David Levithan (moderator), Alex Gino, Sarah McCarry [This was her panel, at least her Saturday one. I’ve read All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings but haven’t gotten to About A Girl.], Daphne Gottlieb, Nina LaCour, Jeffrey Self, and Greg Cope White

  • I’m not sure what the title was supposed to suggest, but this was basically the queer lit panel.
  • Nina LaCour told a story about visiting the Gay-Straight Alliance at a high school in the Anoka-Hennepin school district (she just said “a town in Minnesota,” but I knew exactly where she was talking about) around the time of a rash of suicides that made national news. Several of the students who died had been bullied for their perceived sexual orientation. Nina LaCour talked about how the students she spoke to were hungry to hear about what life could be like in a better (= more accepting) place, i.e. San Francisco. I guess you know you’re a true Minnesotan when you bristle (ever so demurely, of course) at any whisper of an implication that your state is a backwater. I don’t doubt LaCour’s story, and I get that Anoka is not Minneapolis, but still…
  • An audience member asked what I thought was a very good question about LGBT people trying to gain acceptance through conformity/by making an effort to portray themselves as “normal.” Examples include making the case for gay marriage by showing that gay couples are just like straight couples and criticizing these loathsome bathroom bills by showing pictures of, say, a prototypically masculine-looking trans man in a women’s restroom to show how absurd it would be to force him to use it. The audience member’s point was that queer folks shouldn’t have to mold themselves into society’s idea of what normal is in order to be accepted. For instance, people should have the right to use whichever bathroom they feel most comfortable in even if their gender presentation is more ambiguous or they aren’t fully passing. In an ideal world, such an argument should be enough to convince people that bathroom bills are harmful and unnecessary (though I fear it isn’t). Anyway, to all of this Sarah McCarry said authors should “write about weirdos and freaks” like they’re just as “interesting, complex, and valid” as anyone else.

History Is So Not Boring

Kiersten White (moderator), M. T. Anderson [I’ve read The Game of Sunken Places and the first Octavian Nothing book, and I really want to read Symphony for the City of the Dead! Anderson even looks kind of like Shostakovich!], Erin BowmanG. NeriSherri L. Smith [also at AWP!], Jessica Spotswoodand Brodi Ashton

  • This was a historical fiction panel, with a lot of the conversation focused on research (but the fun parts, like travel and what sorts of things you’ve Googled that have probably gotten you on an FBI watchlist!).
  • All the panelists said how valuable oral histories are, and Sherri L. Smith said the Library of Congress has tape recordings of interviews with ordinary people present at historically momentous events.

After my last panel, I nipped down to the Mysterious Galaxy book tent and bought Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It’s set in the same universe as her Grisha trilogy, which I never finished, but I’ve heard a lot of great things about this latest novel, so I’m excited to read it.