Tag Archive | conference

LA Times Bookfest, CLS, and C2E2

The past couple of weekends have been eventful and a lot of fun (which means this post is going to be long and all over the place). On April 18th, I went to the LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California. My main purpose in going was to meet my editor, whom I had never met in person and who was going to be on a panel wearing her author hat. It was fun to wander among the booths too, though I will admit to spending part of my time at the festival drafting a handout on English speakers’ perception of Zulu clicks.

The panel I attended featured authors David Levithan, Leila Sales (my editor), and Tommy Wallach. It was moderated by Aaron Hartzler, and it was a lot of fun. Afterwards, I got in the signing line and met Leila. She signed my copy of This Song Will Save Your Life, and we chatted a bit more after the signing crowd had dispersed.

Last weekend, I went to Chicago for the Chicago Linguistic Society’s conference (CLS), which was also a lot of fun. I flew in on Wednesday evening and attended a few talks on Thursday; in particular I’d wanted to hear the one on homesign and the one on sign language phonological typology. I don’t really expect to ever work on sign languages, but I’m always drawn to talks in that area. I also got to see linguists I knew at Swarthmore or whom I had met on the grad school open house circuit again, and it was great to catch up with them.

I presented my paper first thing on Friday morning. It was nice to get it over with and have the rest of the day to absorb other people’s research without worrying about my own talk. I particularly appreciated Bernard Perley’s invited talk on reframing the rhetoric and metaphors around language death and endangerment (in essence, he would like to see linguists talk about language life instead of language death). I thought what he had to say was hugely important and rightly challenged us linguists to think hard about the ethics of linguistic fieldwork. He also gently (but directly) called out the previous invited speaker on an aspect of her talk, which had been just hours before his. I have no doubt that was an uncomfortable moment, and for more of us than just the invited speaker, but I think Dr. Perley was right to point out what he did because we can’t change what we don’t realize we’re doing wrong.

My colleagues from UCLA were both presenting in the Beyond Field Methodologies session. I was particularly eager for my field methods professor’s talk because it was about me! Okay, not really. It was about our class’s experience taking a monolingual approach to doing field methods on Maragoli and about monolingual fieldwork in general. That evening, our little UCLA contingent of three went out for Chicago deep-dish pizza.

On Saturday, I skipped out on the conference to go to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2). I’d been planning this ever since I’d learned that author Rachel Hartman would be appearing at C2E2 and that C2E2 was the same weekend as CLS. The timing worked out beautifully. It was my first time at a comic con, and I felt kind of out of my element among the crowds of cosplayers, but the costumes were pretty amazing.

The panel I’d come for was one of the few book-related panels and was about worldbuilding. In addition to Rachel Hartman, there were six other panelists, including the guy who writes the Star Wars Shakespeare (Shakespeare Star Wars?) books. I particularly liked the discussion of creating maps and of the authors’ favorite worlds. And best of all, I had the good fortune of getting to have dinner with Rachel, which was delightful.

Afterwards, I made my way back to the CLS banquet. Dinner was over, but the evening’s entertainment was just getting underway. And by entertainment I mean hours of karaoke, a CLS tradition. Now, I am not a karaoke person; I’ve always declined invitations to UCLA linguistics karaoke. I guess after my solos in the Georgian chorus concert I can no longer say that I do not sing in front of people without at least ten other people singing along with me, but the fact remains that my familiarity with popular music is so poor that most of the time I really can’t participate. I honestly don’t know the vast majority of songs that one could use for karaoke. Indeed, as other people went up to sing songs that are evidently well-known, I usually found myself recognizing the chorus or some chord progression but not knowing the melody, much less the words, to the verses.

It was fun to watch, though, and there were some pretty talented singers as well as dancers. A highlight was a non-karaoke number, in which two grad students sang a Greek song accompanied by clarinet and bouzouki. Bouzouki! I want a bouzouki. People also sang in Russian, Turkish, Japanese, and Indonesian. And Mandarin, which is how I ended up doing karaoke after all. I’d gotten up from our table briefly, and I came back just as a USC grad student I knew was singing a line from a song in Chinese. I said, “Hey, I know that song!”

Long story short, I found myself at the front of the hall with the USC grad student and a third grad student, and we sang the Taiwanese song 對面的女孩看過來, which, as far as I can tell, is about the inscrutability of girls. It brought me back to Chinese department New Year’s parties in the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse, which is the last place I sang this song, with the other students in my Chinese class. All I remembered of this song was the first line and the chorus, and although the karaoke video we’d found on Youtube had the words, they were obviously in Chinese characters, many of which I’ve forgotten. So I watched them fly by and jumped in on random pronouns or easy stuff like 很可愛. And the chorus, thank goodness.

So, you didn’t think I’d ever do karaoke? Yeah, me neither. I guess I do better with languages other than English. Maybe next time I’ll attempt a rendition of “Je fais de toi mon essentiel”…

Poisonous Newts and African Linguistics

At the end of spring break, I went to the 46th Annual Conference on African Linguistics (ACAL) at the University of Oregon with most of my Field Methods class. We were all presenting papers on Maragoli, a Luyia Bantu language of western Kenya also known as Logoori, among other names. (In fact, between our six talks, we managed to use four different names for the language, even though we had all gotten our data from the same speaker.) It was my first time presenting at a linguistics conference.

I flew from Los Angeles to Eugene on a little plane. To reach our gate at LAX, passengers on my flight had to take a shuttle to what felt like an outpost of the airport. The shuttle drove on the same thoroughfares as gigantic airplanes, which was both weird and interesting. During the flight, I saw an isolated mountain liberally heaped with snow that I think was Mt. Shasta.

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This is the only thing I photographed on my trip, soon after I arrived on campus in Eugene.

I arrived in Eugene and made my way to the campus of the University of Oregon, which was picturesque and wonderfully green. It felt like it was properly spring there, what with the daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinth, and hellebores. I made some notes on my talk handout and met up with one of my classmates. After registering for the conference at the Linguistics Department, we explored Eugene on foot. It seems like a really nice town.

That evening, I met up with our Field Methods professor, who had driven down from Portland with a Nigerian scholar she’d picked up at the airport. I met the Nigerian linguist, who was going to be in the same session as me, and then my professor and I went off to borrow camping equipment. In the spirit of spring break, we were making a camping trip out of ACAL.

That night, we camped by Hult Reservoir on Bureau of Land Management land. We drove there in the dark, and just looking up through the window of the car I saw more stars in one night’s sky than I’ve seen in the entire time I’ve lived in LA. We heard frogs croaking by the side of the road, and sometimes we drove through fog. Once at the campground, we set up our tents near the reservoir and went to bed.

In the morning, I went down to the reservoir. It was in a bowl formed by steep hills, and the bowl was filled with thick fog, so that I could only see a little ways out across the water. I spoke briefly to a fisherman on the shore and then crouched at the edge of the water and dipped my hands in. The water was clear and cold. I saw what I thought were newts swimming in the shallow water. (Indeed, later research suggested these were rough-skinned newts, which are highly toxic, but only if you eat them. An Oregon man once swallowed a 20-cm long (!) specimen on a dare and died. Another Oregon man once ate five of these newts and survived, though not without medical treatment. I think the moral of the story is clear.)

We broke camp and headed back to Eugene for the first day of the conference. I spent a good deal of the day in the Luyia tone workshop, trying to absorb reams of tonal pattern data. I also attended two of my classmates’ talks and met various linguists, including Famous Linguist #1, who was cited a couple of times in my talk, and Famous Linguist #2, several of whose Bantu problem sets I shepherded my Phonology I students through last fall. We also got to meet other linguists working on Luyia languages like Maragoli.

I’d hoped to make it to the Eugene Sacred Harp singers’ singing, which was fortuitously the Thursday I was in town, but alas, it was not to be. Instead, my professor, another classmate, and I headed to our next campground, Hobo Camp, which is along Brice Creek in the Umpqua National Forest. Our professor made hot chocolate and oatmeal on the camp stove, and then we retired, falling asleep to the sound of the creek rushing in its bed.

The morning drives back to campus were the most beautiful parts of the trip. We’d follow somewhat winding roads through forested hills and past little houses with smoke coming out of their chimneys. We saw old covered bridges and handfuls of sheep, horses, cows, goats, and even an alpaca. Wisps of cloud would be hanging so low you felt like you could reach up and snatch them down.

Friday was the day of my talk. I went to the phonology session in the morning and then skipped out on the next to make final preparations. My session was after lunch and was chaired by someone who just graduated from UCLA last year. Unfortunately, it was also concurrent with the session that my professor and two other classmates were presenting in. Famous Linguist #2 had asked me earlier why the organizers had scheduled two Maragoli talks simultaneously and then told me he was coming to mine. He was indeed there, though Famous Linguist #1, somewhat to my relief, was not. The talk went well, attendees asked me questions, but not aggressive ones, and then I was done!

The conference banquet was that evening. By then, our consultant, to whom we owed all our research, had arrived from LA. The meal was supposed to be African-themed, and there was this spicy peanut stew with chicken that I thought was pretty tasty, but by the time my table was called up to take food, they had run out of rice. Tragedy! (Eventually there was more rice.) This being Oregon, there was marionberry crisp for dessert. There was also post-dinner entertainment by a marimba ensemble playing Zimbabwean music. My tastes in music have a distinct tendency to run towards doom and gloom, but this was infectiously happy music, and I really liked some of the pieces. Some people got up and danced.

The following day, my classmate and fellow camper, our Field Methods consultant, and I flew out of Eugene on the same flight. I saw Mt. Shasta from the air again, and then it was back to LA and school.

The Evolution of a Deaf Character

As I mentioned last week, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting at the beginning of January. One of the talks I was particularly looking forward to was the plenary address by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the field of gesture studies. Her speech was entitled “From homesign to sign language: Creating language in the manual modality.” The reason I was so interested in this talk is because Susan Goldin-Meadow actually had an indirect influence on Sparkers. In the book, Marah’s younger brother Caleb is deaf. His deafness has been one of the few points of intersection of my writing and my study of linguistics, and it’s certainly the one that has preoccupied me the most.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked for a University of Minnesota professor who was studying the gestures preschoolers make as they talk in the context of make-believe play. My job was to watch videos of preschoolers over and over and transcribe and categorize their gestures. I also began a literature review, which is how I first came across Goldin-Meadow’s work.

Goldin-Meadow has two main research interests: co-speech gesture and homesign. It was the former that was relevant to my summer research, but the latter also piqued my interest. Homesign is “the gestural communication system developed by a deaf child who lacks input from a language model in the family. This is a common experience for deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community” (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t remember having an “aha!” moment, but that must have been the first time I had the vocabulary to describe how Caleb talked to his mother and sister. He was using homesign, but I had never known to call it that, nor had I thought much about its linguistic or non-linguistic properties.

In her speech in January, Goldin-Meadow demonstrated that homesign is more language-like than gesture (that is, what hearing people use when they talk) but is not full-fledged sign language. Though of course I learned a lot of new things from her talk, the core distinctions between gesture, homesign, and sign language were the ones I remembered from before, the ones which had been shaping how I thought about Caleb and his ways of communicating for years.

Some background information: Caleb is the only deaf member of his family, and he has never interacted with other deaf people. He and his family communicate using a system of signs. In Sparkers, he’s ten years old. Although he doesn’t go to school, he’s very precocious and enjoys reading his fourteen-year-old sister’s school books.

Originally, Caleb was born deaf. In the earliest drafts, I occasionally referred to the way he and Marah communicated as “sign language.” It’s hard to trace the precise evolution of how I conceived of and portrayed Caleb’s deafness, but it seems it wasn’t until the end of 2011 that I changed my mind about Caleb being deaf from birth. In a document in which I was planning revisions, I noted that Caleb’s reading level was implausible for a child who’d been born deaf. I decided he’d lost his hearing as a toddler as a result of meningitis. In this revision document, I also specifically called Caleb’s signs “homesign.”

Early last year, while visiting grad schools, I met several linguistics students and professors who were doing research on sign languages and language acquisition and reading ability in deaf children. This was during a time when I felt like linguistics and writing were pulling me in different directions, so I actually appreciated that these visits were drawing the two together by making me think hard about Caleb. But they also made me wonder just how well or badly I had written this deaf character, who was now an inextricable part of a novel that was about to be sold.

Attending Susan Goldin-Meadow’s plenary address three weeks ago brought all these old wonderings back, as well as sparking some new ones. I’m not finished thinking about Caleb, so I don’t really have an ending to this post, except to say that I’m grateful for the occasional convergence of my linguistics and writing lives.

Musings on Character Naming

At the beginning of January, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting in Minneapolis. Meeting concurrently were the LSA’s sister societies, including the American Name Society. The ANS is dedicated to onomastics, the study of proper names. Practically all the ANS talks sounded fascinating, from “Ojibwe name giving” to “A sociolinguistic analysis of first names given to Lebensborn children within Nazi-Germany” to “How pet owners in Taiwan choose names for their dogs” (!). But the only one I managed to attend was “Contemporary authors: The naming of their fictional characters and places.”

The presenter, a novelist, discussed the origins of some of his own characters’ names and shared responses to a survey he had sent out to other authors (of literary fiction, mostly) about how they named their characters. The responses were fairly mundane, but I was struck by a remark one author made. He said that if you have a clear idea of your character’s personality, the name shouldn’t matter. The name shouldn’t have to fit the character, necessarily, because after all he knows lots of people whose names don’t fit them. I found this interesting for two reasons: 1) I think there’s an assumption that authors try to choose names that suit their characters in some way, whether by their sound or their meaning or their historical or intertextual echoes, and this author seems to discount the importance of character naming; and 2) He almost seems to suggest that authors sometimes use a character’s name as a crutch, a substitute for adequate characterization, and that they shouldn’t do this. Maybe I’m reading too much into his comment, but there’s plenty to ponder there.

I still think a lot of authors do choose their characters’ names carefully and with certain intentions. Perhaps an extreme (but wonderful!) example is Lemony Snicket. The names of the characters in A Series of Unfortunate Events are a carnival of literary allusions (one of the reasons I think this series is extraordinarily sophisticated and meant for readers of all ages). The more well-read you are, the more nods to literature you will pick up on, and I think this is appropriate given the value attached to being well-read in the series itself. I remember the moment I realized a character in The Hostile Hospital was named after the narrator of Albert Camus’s La Peste (The Plague–appropriate, right?).

As for my own character naming practices, since I mostly write fantasy, I usually either invent proper names (while striving to keep the names in a given world linguistically coherent) or choose a language/culture to draw proper names from. In Sparkers, most people from Ashara have names of Hebrew origin while people from Xana, a country across the sea, have names of Arabic origin. (I’m not sure I would make the same choice today, but it’s too late now.) Of course, Ashara and Xana themselves are made up.

I generally choose names by figuring out what sounds good or right to me. I consider the meaning of a character’s name, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have a clear connection to the character’s personality or role or actions. I just like to know what it is, and if it adds something subtle to the totality of who the character is, so much the better. That said, my main character Marah’s name means “bitter,” and this was a meaning I wanted. Marah started out a bitterer character than she is now, her bitterness having been tempered over years of revision. But the name of the other main character, Azariah, means something like “God has helped,” and I don’t mean this to have anything to do with who he is. I just liked the name.

On the other hand, I once did select some characters’ names much more intentionally. This was in a short story inspired by a fleeting episode in the Bible:

And [Gideon] said unto Jether his firstborn, Up, and slay them. But the youth drew not his sword: for he feared, because he was yet a youth. (Judges 8:20)

In the Bible, Gideon is an Israelite hero who here asks his firstborn son to kill two enemy kings who have killed Gideon’s brothers. I transposed this episode into an alternate 19th c. America and into the context of a violent family feud. The biblical text supplied the bare bones of my plot, but in my story, the father who commands his son to shoot two men from the rival family in vengeance is not a sympathetic figure. I kept the name Gideon for him to preserve the link to the Judges text and because the name fit well in the new setting. I abandoned the name Jether because I don’t like it and it’s too unfamiliar. Instead, I named the son Absalom. I chose this name for several reasons. Most trivially, it has the Swedish form Axel. My alternate 19th c. America was peopled by immigrants of English and Swedish origin, and I liked that Absalom could be nicknamed Axel. According to some sources (alas, I don’t know Hebrew), Absalom means “my father is peace,” and I liked the irony of this. Finally, I liked the reverberations of the name given the story of the biblical Absalom, the son of King David. Absalom rebels against his father, which in a way my character does too. But when Absalom is killed by David’s own men, David says, “[W]ould God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 18:33). Despite everything, David still loves his son Absalom in a way that my character Gideon does not love his son Absalom. However, the anguish my Absalom feels over the ultimate deaths of the men his father tries to make him kill echoes King David’s. The parallels are imperfect, but what interests me is the stirrings of connection.

Incidentally, in Sparkers, Marah’s father is also named Avshalom.