Mesmerize, magnolia, masochism, and other anachronisms

A while back I was kindly tagged in a tumblr post where somebody was saying that they found my babbling about conlanging interesting. (Thanks, person! I’m really sorry I’m about to make an example of one of your opinions.) In that same post, on a different conversation topic, they mentioned that they found it really annoying when people in historical fantasy said “Okay” because it was anachronistic.

This is a hard pill to swallow for me, I said as I defensively covered all the times in my first draft that “Okay” appears because I didn’t think about it much and wrote the first thing that came into my head. To start off, language is not constructed such that you can easily tell what words are actually anachronistic. Some people are devoted enough to get serious about anachronism in their prose–Mary Robinette Kowal said on Writing Excuses one time back in the day that she has a database of Regency-era words and in her later drafts she coldly eliminates all anachronistic language based on earliest etymological attestations like some kind of “okay” executioner. But many people who will complain about “okay” are probably not that serious! They may well have used words such as “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” and “masochism,” which are not only first attested well after 1700, but are based on the names of specific human beings; your conworld may have foxes as we’ve all accepted that we have to take some shortcuts, but I doubt it had the author of Venus in Furs.

And more importantly to this post, Kowal is writing about English. Kowal has a specific year in which the novel takes place. I am not writing about English! I am writing about Sobonese. “Okay” is exactly as anachronistic to Sobonese as “satire”, “palm tree,” and “the.” None of these words exist in the novel! English doesn’t exist! There is no “corresponding year” to compare etymologies against to even begin to lead words to the guillotine. I guess we can try to compare technology levels, but that gets so hopelessly granular and painful so quickly. Carts never really came to West Africa, even though they had some animals that could pull carts, and the wheel, and trading empires, but there’s carts in my novel right now because otherwise everything would be too bloody inconvenient. (Upcoming: An agonized post about whether my book should have carts?) So do I cut from the fourteenth or fifteenth century?

I don’t want to take away “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” or “masochism,” or indeed “okay.” That’s my point! Words are the keys to very, very specific locks. I am willing to put a flag in the ground that says there is nothing in the English language you could write to replace, in one word, the sweet-scented, milk-petaled, silky-smooth luxury and decadence of “magnolia.” “Magnolia” is a beautiful word and you should be allowed to use it. Words are technologies; they didn’t have camera dollies in ancient Scandanavia but nobody’s suggested Vikings should be told entirely through roving storytellers in stripey pants.

I mean, the actual reason is that for some people “okay” just ruins the atmosphere, and I take atmosphere very seriously; if you can pick every word, you may as well pick words that motion at things you want the viewer to look at. Which is why even though there’s no Polynesia to bring yams from, Akoro (the West African – inspired plane in Geometry of Ashes) has yams. I could make up a convegetable for them to have instead, but that throws away the valuable sentence real estate that could have pointed to West Africa to point instead to I’m really into ecology and have made up a whole vegetable ecosystem. That could also be cool, but it’s not this book. I think this is worth thinking about, because you get to pick whether you value what each “okay” is doing more than its alternative; whether you need to unlock okay and all right just won’t do. Because the meaning of “okay” is all bundled up with every social distinction ever layered on top of “okay.” It’s young and casual and carefree. There’s certainly people in your conworld who, if they were raised in Ontario, would say “okay” rather than “all right.” So why should they say “all right”, since they aren’t saying anything in English in the first place and you only have so much page space to make people understand who they are?

And in general I feel like there are books that you might want to allow to overbalance toward easiness and sacrifice atmosphere. I’ve thought I’d do this with a book about a hunter-gatherer society because people are so reluctant to think, what if I lived in a family band and travelled across a desert my whole life? My hunter-gatherers would shamelessly say “cool” and “okay”. Because you say “cool” and “okay” and we need a little extra wedge to get open a shell we aren’t familiar with and squeeze inside.

And, anyways, that’s like the fifth metaphor I’ve mixed in this post, so my credibility on prose writing is, I recognize, not excellent.

 

 

 

Two-tined forks

At my university there’s a little gallery of materials that our art history professors have used to teach. Among the displays of potsherds and fabrics there’s also a couple of sets of cutlery.

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Count ’em. (This particular fork is 18th c. Scottish.)

(I feel bad skimming over the fabrics–they’re astonishing ikat blankets from fieldwork in Borneo. Weaving is called the “women’s warpath” in the area the cloths are from and cloth and wood are contrasted as feminine and masculine materials. Women dye the threads before they’re woven, thread by thread, and we’re talking cloths that would cover your wall. Then they can be used for lots of sacred purposes, including, lest one think that “warpath” is a cutesy euphemism, cradling the decapitated heads of enemies brought back by male warriors.)

But this is about cutlery. When I write, “Baron von Past picked up a fork,” I would assume that fork looks much like a fork I have in my house, except maybe it’s rougher and made out of wood. My mental image is actually one of those soft-tined, cutesy camping forks like maybe you could see laid beside a quinoa bowl in a lifestyle magazine. It definitely has three tines.

Nope. And why should it? Why shouldn’t it have four tines? Just because all my forks have three tines means nothing. Where did we even get that extra tine?

This seems like a big problem for writing historical fantasy. And especially writing historical fantasy for an era that’s never been in your cultural orbit, since odds get better and better that your assumptions are wrong the farther you stray from England circa 1800. I’m sure historians have written extensively about this but I’m no historian; I’ll hope to read some words from them later and respond to my own post with takeaways from the papers I review. But in the meantime, this comes up often enough to make a poor amateur stress about describing anything. For instance, I learned that hand fans are one of the objects associated with the òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun (a spirit/goddess/entity/facet of the universe), and thoughtlessly started to doodle a paper folding fan. Nope!

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From the collection of the Met museum.

“Why is it metal?” I thought. Then, “….Why not?

I’m focusing a lot on objects because it’s so easy to contrast the assumption with the reality, but of course, the knottiest examples of this problem concern much more intangible things.When I write about Baron von Past’s marriage, I’ll probably be sharp enough to catch that “bride is dressed in white dress” is an assumption imposed by my understanding of marriage and have them exchange bracelets or something instead of rings. But this isn’t enough. The fantasy marriages I would write in this framework are just reskins of modern Western marriage. I may still carry a lot of assumptions about Western marriage into Baron von Past’s attitudes toward his marriage and his wife; about his wife’s attitudes toward him and their marriage; about what is acceptable within their marriage to their community and what isn’t; what they’ll do together, what they’ll do apart. When I started writing about marriage in Geometry of Ashes, I really didn’t recognize the extent to which marriage means something different in different cultures. And because nobody ever creates semantic networks of what they mean by “marriage” in books where they briefly discuss marriage, I’m still only scratching the surface and it’s difficult to articulate. Here’s two anecdotes from Igbo books I found very striking:

In Things Fall Apart, of course, Ekwefi remembers running away from her first husband to join Okonkwo. I’ll just repeat the passage; it’s on page 99.

She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene she could bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out. Even in those days he was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.

I still haven’t close-read Things Fall Apart, so if there’s something I’m about to say that contradicts the wealth of scholarship, let me know. But here’s some assumptions I had made about marriage that this passage shows us are not true for Ekwefi:

  • Marriage is either forever or it takes a lot of work to break. I presume that Ekwefi went through some kind of divorce proceedings after this but apparently they weren’t arduous enough to make it into the text. (Imagine me writing the word “presume”, then looking back over my writing, sighing and putting my face in my hands.)
  • You wouldn’t marry somebody just to be married. Clearly there’s economic incentive for Ekwefi to marry Anene, but I think our Western assumption is that you would marry a rich man for his riches, not because you have to be married and he’s the best option. Marriage is something you opt into–even though implicit cultural pressure might suggest otherwise–not something you must have, like a job.
  • Taking a lover outside marriage demands secrecy. It’s not like women elsewhere in the book aren’t judged for supposedly having lovers outside their marriage, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like Ekwefi is planning to have Okonkwo be her side guy. The pattern of extramarital sexual relations we’re used to in the West is of, like, an executive who’s banging his secretary and stringing his wife along. Rather than keeping a lover in secret, she just leaves her husband.

Here’s a second one: I don’t currently have a copy of Male Daughters, Female Husbands on me, but in it, Imi Amadiume explains that in the language under discussion (Nnobi Igbo dialect), the female slaves of a woman are called her “wives.” She clarifies that this relationship is probably not sexual. This is an interesting one because I actually suspect this ends up at pure synonymy, so I don’t want to draw strong conclusions from it. (Imagine if an Igbo blogger studying English-speaking cultures declared that because English men call their penises “cocks” they must have subliminal connections between penises and roosters that suggest they think their penis wakes people up at the break of day.) But, this case isn’t so absurd as that, and “wife” and “female slave” are at least the same category of thing (human women). So, similarly, although I assumed the following things, we can maybe think that for Nnobi Igbo speakers they are not necessarily intrinsic to marriage or at least for “wifehood”:

  • Marriage is an equal economic exchange between two families or an equal emotional exchange between two people. Elephant in the room: we can construe this synonymy as suggesting that wives are in a position of servitude to their husbands. This is anathema to any Westerner, but I keep coming back to thinking of marriage as labour. Maybe you have a boss who expects certain things from you, but in return, you expect certain things from him. You can be friendly with your boss, but he’s still your boss. You might think your boss is the best boss on earth, and sing his praises to all your friends, but he’s still your boss. In this case, your boss doesn’t pay you, but has responsibility to care for your well-being. And (coincidentally or not?) this is also the arrangement as far as I can tell in most West African traditional slavery. This isn’t to say any of that isn’t unjust, but boss-employee relations are still accepted by the majority of Westerners and really how just can we judge the average boss-employee relationship to be?
  • Marriage is a specific relationship, not a type of relationship. It doesn’t mean “a love relationship to another person.” It means this specific love relationship to another person. You wouldn’t say “I married my dog” even though you have a love relationship with your dog, live with your dog, and sleep in the same bed with your dog. But if we believe that the word for “female slave of a woman” and “wife” have a meaningful semantic relationship, which remember we aren’t convinced of, that means that “being a wife” is a category of relationships in this translation; “wife” is a category of people at one end of a power relationship.

Now imagine going through this process for every word and concept in your book and you start to understand why people might slap a new skin on Western marriage and call it a day. But maybe, like me, you’re insufferably pedantic, I said as I realized Ekwefi also calls a pre-dawn time morning, dragged my nails down my face, and highlighted each instance of “morning” over the last 200 pages of novel.