New Article on the #FolkloreThursday Blog: Bars of Flaming Swords

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I have a new series of three articles going up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! The series is called Stories my Parents Tell Me, and the first piece, “Bars of Flaming Swords,” is up now.

If you’ve been reading Multo for a while, the articles may seem familiar: I’ve based them on several posts from my Stories my Parents Tell Me category. I’m excited to be sharing my parents’ stories with the larger #FolkloreThursday audience.

“Mom, what do you know about the aswang?”

My parents never told me much about Filipino folklore when I was growing up. As professionals with advanced degrees, maybe they felt that old folktales and superstitions weren’t the kind of thing to share with their American-born daughters. Or maybe they just never thought about it. It wasn’t until much later that I got curious. So on a sunny Boxing Day morning a few years ago, I decided to ask.

Read “Bars of Flaming Swords” here.


Image: Mt. Isarog at the ricefields of Kinalansan, San Jose, Camarines Sur, Philippines. Photo by Geopoet. Source: Wikimedia

The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part One

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First of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


I recently bought Mark Valentine’s anthology, The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, which is a collection of some of my favorite authors riffing on the themes found in Oscar Wilde’s novel. It had been quite a while since I’d read The Picture of Dorian Gray, so I decided to re-read it before diving into the anthology.

Of course, I noticed (again) all the things in the book that one usually notices: the gay subtext of artist Basil Hallward’s feelings for Dorian, Dorian’s moral decline, the characters’ witty (or precious, depending on your point of view) conversation, Wilde’s little digs at Victorian upper-class society, and what a poser and asshole Lord Henry Wotton is.

About a third of the way in, I ran face-first into this passage. Basil has just learned of Dorian’s engagement to Sibyl Vane, and Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are having dinner before going to see Sibyl’s performance in Romeo and Juliet. In conversation, Henry says, “When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”

To which Basil responds, what does Henry mean by good?

“Yes,” echoed Dorian, leaning back in his chair and looking at Lord Henry over the heavy clusters of purple-lipped irises that stood in the centre of the table, “what do you mean by good, Harry?”

For some reason, that paragraph stopped me cold. What on earth were those irises doing there? Wilde does spend a lot of time describing settings: the furniture and bric-a-brac in a room, the plants in a garden; but he hadn’t described this particular room at all. Was it important that Dorian had to look over the irises to see Lord Henry?

That sent me back to the beginning of the book, looking for all the flower references. And I realized that there are a LOT of flower references. The Victorians were into floriography, the language of flowers; did Wilde fill the text with symbology that I wasn’t catching?

Probably he did; and probably literary and mythological references that I also missed. But he also built quite a lot of explicit structure into the novel through flowers, as well. I’m sure there’s a dissertation out there somewhere on this, but it was new to me, and so for fun, I thought I’d suss it out, along with some possibly apropos flower symbology.

Warning: plot spoilers abound. I’m assuming that you’ve read Dorian Gray, or at least skimmed the synopsis in Wikipedia.

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The Saga of Pele and Hiiaka: New article on the #FolkloreThursday Blog

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I have another article on the #FolkloreThursday blog! This one tells the saga of the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka.

This one especially struck me because I started the research soon after Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman movie came out. That movie was a big sensation among (especially) female action movie and comic fans: finally, we have a movie of our own! Everyone loved the strong portrayals of woman by Gal Godot, Robin Wright, and even (in a minor, but not completely fluff, role) Lucy Davis as Steve Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy.

And then I started reading about Pele and Hiiaka and I realized — Hawaiian mythology has had this all along! The women in this saga — both major and minor characters — rule their own lives, with all the good and bad that this entails. It was a pleasure to discover it, and a joy to share it with other folklore aficionados.

A fiery-tempered, jealous deity; passionate friendship and love; brave warriors on a quest. These are elements of great myths and sagas from all over the world, but the saga of the volcano goddess Pele and her sister Hiiaka is special: it is a saga of powerful, self-actuated women. As John Charlot wrote, the Pele saga is “among the fullest, most interesting characterizations [of women] in world literature.”

In addition to the fascinating story, one of the best parts for me was discovering the hula and chant, Ke Ha`a Ala Puna, which commemorates one episode of the saga. I included a performance of the hula in the post.

Read about the saga here.

Enjoy!

Hunting for the (Male) Batibat

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It started as a quote in Maximo Ramos’ The Aswang Complex in Philippine Folklore. Ramos was explaining how rural Filipinos often prefer to sleep on the edge of the room, rather than the middle, for protection against the viscera sucking version of the aswang — the kind who climbs on the house and drops its tongue down between the chinks of the roof to suck out its victims innards.

Sleep towards the edge of the room, Ramos warned, but not too near a post:

for the posts may harbor a tree-dwelling mythical demon like the bangugot or batibat. This is a nightmare-inducing, insanity-causing creature resembling the genii of the Near East. It is said to have refused to leave its tree when it was felled and stubbornly to have gone on living in a crevice of cavity in the wood, emerging to sit on a tenant’s chest and suffocate him by plugging his mouth with its phallus and his nostrils with its testicles.

Huh. That deserves more investigation, I thought.

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The Most Famous Book Set in Your State?

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Jim Booth at the blog The New Southern Gentlemen recently took issue with a Business Insider called “The most famous book that takes place in every state”. Mostly, he takes issue with BI‘s nomination for his own state of North Carolina.

I have no opinion one way or the other about Nicholas Sparks, and given that my reading tastes runs to both genre and short stories, I’m probably not the most qualified person to weigh in on which full-length book should represent which state. But of course I couldn’t resist checking what they picked for California. I don’t know what I was expecting to see — but it wasn’t what they chose:

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

Hmmmmmmm…….

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The Pishtaco: New article on #FolkloreThursday Blog

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I have an article up on the #FolkloreThursday blog! I write about the Pishtaco, a fat-stealing ghoul whose legend circulates among indigenous communities in the Andean highlands. I first heard about this legend on a visit to Peru — and it hit the news internationally as recently as 2009 (as you’ll read in the article)!

Known by many names, this legendary fat-stealer stalks indigenous communities in the rural Andean highlands.

In the Peruvian Andes, they say he wanders the roads at night. He may look like a gringo (someone not Hispanic or Latino): hairy and bearded, wearing boots, a hat, and leather jacket. He may be on horseback, or in more modern times, in a car. He may look like a priest, walking along the side of the road. With his long knife, he attacks solitary travelers and dismembers them for food and for their fat.

In the Bolivian Andes, he might be the stranger next to you on the bus; don’t fall asleep! And don’t walk alone on the roads, either. If you meet him on the path, he will put you into a deep sleep with his prayers, or with powdered human bones. As you sleep he extracts the brown, hard fat around your organs (cebo: tallow or suet) with his knife, or with a special machine. You awaken, feeling weak. You fall sick. In a few days, you die.

Read the rest of the article here.

Hope you enjoy it.


Image: The Andes, Ayacucho Region, Peru. Source: Wikimedia

Buildings and Dreams

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I was flipping through my notebooks not too long ago, in search of material for a blog post, when I stumbled upon a couple of old fiction pieces that I had been wrestling with, then put aside. They were partially influenced by a motif one finds frequently in ghost stories written when “scientific” explanations of apparitions were de rigueur: ghosts as the “psychic recordings” of violent events or emotions. The idea, I believe, still circulates in ghost-hunting circles. Listen to the discussion/definition at about 2:55 or so of this YouTube video about the “10 Types of Ghosts”:

To me a ghost is an apparition… sort of a replay of an event that happened a long time ago because of an imprint or place memory…

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On Reading Rabindranath Tagore

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My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.

Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.

Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.

I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.

There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.

All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”

[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.

That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.


Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):

  • The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
  • The Hungry Stones: Of course.
  • The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
  • The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.

Enjoy.


Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.

Two More Literary Excavations

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I found and posted a couple more of my old short stories to Ephemera. I think this is it. Now I have to write more new ones….

I wrote Sally: A Fantasy a few years back to tell out loud at this kind of variety show thing a few friends of mine and I put on. We had a little social writing group together. One of my friends is an actress/dancer who wanted a venue for her one-woman monologues; another is an experimental documentary filmmaker who wanted a venue to try out her foray into live multimedia storytelling. Me? I was just there, and needed something to perform. And you know I like ghost stories.

Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.

She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.

The piece was well received, as I recall; several folks in the audience said that it had them on edge of their seat. Reading it back now, I still like it well enough, but I find it somehow unsatisfying from a craft point of view. In particular, the present-tense that I used doesn’t sit too well with me, though it felt natural in the oral storytelling. But it seemed worth putting up, and so I did.

Horsefly is something I worked on and then abandoned. The first draft of it is substantially what I posted to Ephemera; but I tried to fill it out, make it longer, extend it into the past and future of that single day. It didn’t go anywhere, and reading it back now, I like the short piece that I started with. I think it’s all it needs to be. The hypercritical part of my mind thinks that the characters are a bit one-dimensional; but maybe that’s inevitable in a piece this short? As with fairy tales, maybe brevity forces you to deal in archetypes rather than fully-realized, contradictory beings. Or maybe that’s all baloney and I’m just being hypercritical. Anyway, I like the ending, and so up on Ephemera it goes.

The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.

Clang clang.

I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.

Clang clang.

Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Hope you enjoy.


Image: The Reader, Frederico Zandomeneghi. Sourced from WikiArt.

A Darkish Little Fairy Tale, or An Anecdote on Writing

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A cool fact about aspens (from Wikipedia):

All of the aspens typically grow in large clonal colonies, derived from a single seedling, and spread by means of root suckers; new stems in the colony may appear at up to 30–40 m (98–131 ft) from the parent tree. Each individual tree can live for 40–150 years above ground, but the root system of the colony is long-lived. In some cases, this is for thousands of years, sending up new trunks as the older trunks die off above ground. For this reason, it is considered to be an indicator of ancient woodlands. One such colony in Utah, given the nickname of “Pando”, is estimated to be 80,000 years old, making it possibly the oldest living colony of aspens. Some aspen colonies become very large with time, spreading about 1 m (3.3 ft) per year, eventually covering many hectares.

In other words, a stand of aspens is really one organism. It’s like planting a piece of ginger root: eventually, these narrow, green, bamboo-like stalks will sprout from the rhizome. If you’ve buried the ginger, then each stalk looks like an individual plant, but they’re really all sprouts from the same root. Aspens are kind of the same way.

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