Thursday, August 28, 2014

Read some quality historical fiction today!

I found out big news today: Robert Merle's Fortune de France series, one of the great reading adventures of my youth, is finally being published in English! I wanted to share this with you English-speaking readers, and make a case for adding this book to your shelves.
Not too long ago I wrote a post about 6 Books that Need an English Translation a.s.a.p. My prayers (or whining?) seem to have been answered, and Pushkin Press is proudly presenting us the first volume of one of them this September: Robert Merle's The Brethren.
Fortunes of France (or, as I knew it growing up, French History) is a captivating, exciting and adventurous series of historical fiction that takes place in late Medieval France. The whole series is 13 volumes long, enough to take you through several decades of turbulent 16th century French history, and well into the early 17th century, the world of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu so well-known from... other books. In the midst of struggle between royal houses, religions, and nations, our hero Pierre de Siorac works his way through France (and most of the lovely ladies of his time). Adventures, gallantry, some plague, lots of rapier fighting, complicated politics, generous amounts of love, dark tones, likeable characters, and a quite accurate picture of life in those times makes these books an experience that stays with you permanently.

This is not really a book review. The books have been out for a while, they are a proven classic, and people who have read them already know that they are amazing. Hopefully they will be even more popular now that they are available for the English-speaking bookworm crowd.

(...Who am I kidding? I am willing to hit you over the head until you read them.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

5 Things to Love About the SCA

When you fill out the Ultimate Geek Test (which you should), you get extra points for being in the SCA, and even more extra points for holding an office in the SCA. In mainstream culture, being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism is usually seen as an extremely geeky/nerdy activity. Which is totally fine with me, because I am a nerd. But there are also a lot of stereotypical ideas and misconceptions out there about what the SCA is, or what we do. Without attempting to dissolve all of those, today I had the inspiration to make a list of some of my favorite things about being a SCAdian:

1. Community that talks
We eat together, we sit together, we play together, and we talk a lot. I cherish the times when we sit around, everyone working on their own project of embroidery, spinning, knitting, weaving, etc. and while our hands work, we talk about things. Not just SCA things. All kinds of things. We talk about our day, and work, and the movies we like, and the shows we watch, and the books we read, and sometimes we tell stories, and we laugh a lot. In a world where I walk into classrooms full of students sitting in complete silence staring stubbornly at their phones, it is a rare thing to have one night a week when you just sit and talk to other human beings.

2. Community that dances
People who dance. Real dances (not grinding and twitching). With partners (boy and girl, girl and girl, boy and boy, no one cares). For fun. To live music. People who dance medieval dances, renaissance dances, dances you secretly admire in Jane Austin movies, in long lines, and the guys bow, and the girls curtsy, and, get this, guys don't awkwardly shuffle away to avoid it!! We dance until we can't breathe, and then we dance some more, and We. Have. DANCE CARDS.
*Faints*

3. Community that knows their history
One of the things I notice about my students in the USA is how different their perception of history is compared to students in Europe. Oh sure, most European students loathe history too, but they exist in a space where history has a different, long-term feel to it, and that affects how they perceive long-ago events. Long story short: If you love to have long discussions about Viking weaponry, or the dirty secrets of medieval royal bedrooms, or you love swapping Roman era inside jokes, the SCA is one of the few non.academic spaces to do it. These people are history buffs, and they know their stuff. Oh, and they also know how to make it exciting.

4. Community that creates things
Honestly, I have never been a very crafty person. I don't impulsively re-decorate, I don't make clothes, and I can only sew buttons. I used to do embroidery and friendship bracelets in high school, and that's about it. Even when I was in a Renaissance performance group in Hungary, I had my dresses made, I never got around to making them myself.
And then I joined the SCA. I joined in late August; by early November, I had a tablet weaving project. And with the woven belt came an idea for a garb, and so I started learning how to work a sewing machine. By then I had a shoe box full of needles, scissors, thread, and random tidbits. By the end of spring, I had an ongoing costume project, and a full sized toolbox full of stuff.
The joy of creating something with your own hands is severely underrated these days.

5. YOU GET TO DO ARCHERY
God, I missed archery after high school. So. Freaking. Much.

I rest my case.
#MySCA

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Long stories, short stories, true stories - NSN Conference, Mesa, AZ

While I did not get to live blog everything that happened in these past 5 days of the 2014 NSN conference, now that I am sitting at the airport gate I feel like a report is in order.
Short version: The NSN conference, as usual, was epic.
Long version:

I feel like this year's #NSNStoryCon had a very balanced lineup of workshops. The proverbial pendulum that swings between the extremes of "personal stories only" and "traditional stories forever" seems to be approaching some kind of a middle ground - in my 7 year experience, this year showed a lot more attention to long-form storytelling and traditional stories than a couple of years ago. This in itself made me happy.
Master Class: I took Joe Hayes' master class on telling traditional tales from cultures other than our own. While we established up front that the discussion will not get political, that was easier said than done. People have strong feelings about telling folktales, especially from Native American cultures, without working with the community behind them. With that said, Joe did a good job of telling us tales he works with, and then guiding us backwards through the process of adapting them all the way to the original sources. We learned a lot about Southwestern Native American and Hispanic cultures. While not all of us agreed with the idea of treating stories as text separate from the culture they came from, in the end we reserved that discussion for another day.
Workshops: Too many to choose from! I would have loved all of them, but short of Hermione Granger's time turning thingy, I had to make some hard decisions. The good news? There really were no bad choices.
Pam Faro's Interfaith Interplay was a treat, especially because she drew many of her stories and examples from medieval Andalucía. We talked about spiritual stories, sacred stories, stories of faith traditions, and how to use them to create connections and bridges. Pam is a lovely lady, and a true master of the topic.
Also attended the "No Moth? No Problem!" workshop with Liz Warren, Megan Finnerty and Marilyn Omifunke Torres. It was a tour de force through organizing community storytelling events. Professional, efficient, to the point, no-bullshit presentation. We need more of these so we can all learn how to put on more quality storytelling events! Also, someone's gotta say this: Megan is the Darcy Lewis of the storytelling world. There, I said it. She is an amazing, powerful lady.
Liz Weir's Out of the tunnel and into the light of peace workshop was also eye-opening and much needed. While I thought it was going to be all about stories of ethnic/religious conflict, she gave us much more: She talked about the importance of storytelling in all kinds of conflict in one's life, from bullying to family discord. She drove home the age-old idea that it is a lot harder to hate someone once you know their story...
One of my favorite things this weekend was Rivka Willick's workshop on what storytellers can learn from comics. It was so much fun! We got to browse comics of all kinds, read them, and then play around with adapting their visual and narrative style to our storytelling. We all had great fun, came up with some great lines and images, and I personally felt sorry this was not a 3-hour intensive. We also introduced a bunch of new people to comics, which was lovely.
The last workshop of the weekend for me was Priscilla Howe's presentation on long-form storytelling. That is really where my heart is these days, so it was great to learn and talk more about it. Priscilla told us part of her Tristan and Iseult show, and then we went into questions like how do you prepare to tell one story for hours, what to do when your audience goes into a trance, and how to market long-story events to new audiences. I was so excited by the end of it that I spent dinner break with Priscilla, swapping tales and discussing possibilities.
Swaps and Fringes: The Wednesday evening healing story concert was truly a healing experience. It featured a wide variety of stories from many traditions, which was fascinating to me, and I also learned a lot from them. Thursday evening I attended Cassie Cushing and Ann Harding's fringe The Wily, the Kind and the Bittersweet. What a quality event! Both girls did a beautiful job adapting well-known fairy tales and elaborating them in their own style. They produced the best versions of the Twelve Month Brothers, Snow White and Rose Red, and the Snow Maiden that I have ever heard. The Fairy Tale Lobby story swap similarly turned into a great spontaneous lineup of stories: 7 tellers told 7 tales (including myself, trying out a new Hungarian folktale about a king and his three clever daughters). It could not have been better if we planned it that way!
The Grand Slam was also a treat to behold. Linda Gorham did a wonderful job hosting it; while the judges deliberated, she entertained us with quotes, poems, and songs related to the theme (Fire and Light). We even ended up singing some Johnny Cash. Ha! The stories ranged from hilarious to heartwarming, and for a while we had a spontaneous Chicago Fire theme going. Since I was the only name in the International Region's hat (cup), I got to tell my story too. It was the first time I told the wonderful true tale of the Győrújbarát Naked Cyclist, and I got a huge kick out of the audience reactions. I didn't make first three, but the naked man on a bike became a running joke for the rest of the conference. Some people swore to have seen him, and some people swore it was them. Fun times.
I closed the conference experience with Noa Baum's It's impossible to translate but I'll try, and it was a perfect closure. She guided us on a journey to the Jerusalem of her childhood. We laughed until our sides hurt, and we sighed in nostalgia, and listened with rapt attention as she told us personal stories filled with emotion. I heard people say this was one of the best she has ever done. I can agree with that. She is a wonderful presence on stage.
Keynotes: The opening keynote on Thursday night was much needed and well done. Queen Nur, Kiran Singh Sirah, and Doug Bland all talked about the importance of story in communities, and storytelling work that can change people's relationships to their communities and to each other. And while Kiran's kilt was the undisputed highlight of the evening, we all learned truths and went to sleep filled with hope for the future.
The Friday morning panel on Ancestral Stories was similarly much needed and deep. Four Native storytellers representing four nations talked to us about story, about myth, about the importance of water and earth, and how science and story are not only not mutually exclusive, but cannot even survive without one another. Things that needed to be said were said, and I think we will remember them for a long time.

Of course, a storytelling conference is always a lot more than what is on the program. I could spend a lot of time describing the dedication and lovely hospitality of all the organizers; the fun moments of hurried conversations with old friends in the hallways between workshops; the lunches and dinners that take forever because everyone is talking; the spontaneous and wild dance party that ensued after the end of the Oracle Awards ceremony; the explorations to downtown bookshops and restaurants; the project ideas that were born and exchanged; and the quiet conversations in corners between people who live and understand story.

Thank you all who were there, and all that wanted to be there, and all that will be there next time.
See you on the road!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just What ARE You Anyway? - A folktale about gender and confusion

Today I found a collection of gitano (Gypsy) folktales in Spanish; I bought it a couple of years ago at the Maratón de Cuentos in Guadalajara, read a few of the stories, and then got distracted by another continent. Browsing through it this time I came across a folktale that caught my interest for its treatment of gender roles and expressions.
There is a lot to say about gender fluidity and gender identities, and a lot of it has already been said. I would merely like to add my two cents, and a folktale, to the discussion.

The folktale in this particular case is titled "The Warrior Girl" but it is a type that exists in other forms and in other cultures as well (including Hungarian). At the beginning of the story, we learn that there is a man with seven daughters, which is a great shame, because if a family cannot send a son to the king's army, they are not respected by others. Moving on, the youngest daughter offers to go and take her place in the army (think Hua Mulan), but her father tells her that she can't do it, because she is a girl. Hearing that, she decides to go disguised as a man. The father argues further: She can't pass for a man because her hair is long, and her breasts are full. The girl doesn't give up: She cuts her hair and puts on clothes that conceal her breasts. This is apparently good enough for the father, who begrudgingly allows her to go.
However, arriving to the king's court, the girl soon catches the prince's eyes, who insists to his father that he would wager his life that the young soldier is, indeed, a girl in a man's clothes. "She has too delicate a face to be a man," he says. The king doesn't quite believe his son, but suggests a test: He should invite her for a walk in the palace gardens, and if she goes to admire the flowers, she is a girl. The girl, however, goes for the pear tree instead and picks some fruit, as she says, for herself and for her (female) sweetheart.
At this point the prince's naughty bits are confused, and he opts for another sure-fire test: He takes her shopping. Girls, he reasons, go for the textiles at the market. This one, however, goes for the swords, preparing for battle (since she is, you know, a soldier).
The prince, who has entirely too much frustration going on in his pants, now decides he should just see her naked and tell what she is based on her... er, equipment. But when he invites her for a swim, she jumps into the water fully clothed, claiming that she had made a sacred oath not to undress until the war is over.
The prince gives up.
And then: Divine intervention.
Gearing up for battle, the mysterious soldier's sword breaks. She curses the sword, and curses herself (in a frustrated, "**** me" kind of phrase), revealing her true gender: She refers to herself with a female adjective (this really only works in Spanish, sorry). Ta-da! The prince is happy to find out that the object of his fascination indeed identifies as female, and therefore she is fair game. He asks her to marry him right away, and the folktale goes out with a happy bang.

Sooo... yeah. I'll just leave this here as food for thought.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

10 reasons why the Nart epics are epic

I spent most of last week reading the 500-page Hungarian edition of the Ossetian Nart sagas. It was a special treat for a lot of reasons.
While a huge chuck of the Nart corpus has been published in English in the wonderful translation of John Colarusso, the Ossetian sagas, which some people argue are the original Iranian core of the epics, have yet to be translated. In the meantime, archaeologists of the Sarmatian era (an Iranian people related to the ancestors of the Narts) in Hungary have presented an amazing translation.
The Nart sagas tell us about a group of legendary heroes who essentially are one big, sometimes dysfunctional, over-powered badass family. There is a matriarch on top (Satana), and about four generations of archers, lovers, fighters, and even the mandatory trickster. The stories are not less complex or engaging than any other epic from around the world - yet they are a lot less well known.
So, here is a sampling of the epic that is the Ossetian Nart sagas:

1. Two heroes having a dance-off for the hand of a lady.
It's a refreshing change from people beating each other into the ground (which also happens a lot). Dancing happens on the blades of swords, with a bowl of water on one's head, and also on the feast tables around the food (and this was the only way I could picture it).

2. This story ending, after the hero wins the hand of a lady: "And they lived very happily for a while. But they realized that they were too different, and they decided to go their separate ways." Peaceful divorce ever after. Good for them.

3. This prophecy one hero comes by in the Underworld (which, by the way, is also a place that gives Dante a run for his laurels): "One day men and women will live peacefully as equals."
Important words from a culture where kidnapping wives was common practice at the time.

4. There is a God of Wolves called Tutir. I rest my case.

5. Sirdon the Trickster, Curse of the Narts. Dog person, single father of three. Pretty much described (accurately for a trickster) as "the Narts can't live with him, can't live without him." He is very close to Loki in attitude, but he is bullied way worse than the Norse trickster. Looks like the Narts torture him for kicks. To which he responds with nasty mischief of his own. Very layered character.

6. The practicality of the tale when Satana wants to tamper a newborn and red-hot hero baby in wolf milk (as you do), and her husband's response is: "Where the heck am I supposed to get wolf milk?!" He then goes on to ask for the help of the Mother of Dogs, and she herds a couple of hundred she-wolves into a pen. To which our hero responds: "Umm... okay, now how am I supposed to milk them?"
And really no one ever responds "Hey, we are in a mythical saga, it will just magically happen!"
Nope. He milks them with his own two hands.

7. The Nart hero Hamic has a Mustache of Steel.
That he kills a snake with. Enough said.

8. The time the Narts got God on a technicality: God cursed them saying that no matter how much wheat they work a day, it will only amount to one bucket of grain. So they started only working a handful of wheat each day, and they still got a full bucket out of it. Sheer brilliance.

9. Smart woman moments such as "I am not marrying you, hero of the Narts, because your mother is evil" or "If you don't leave my tower right now, I will put your eyes out with my scissors." Nart women might not be equal to their heroes, but they sure do run things in the background. And they do raise a raiding army every once in a while.

10. The moment one hero explains how he learned not to hurt women: He tells his companions of a time when he was a guest in a house where only women lived (men were away) and he overheard them talking among themselves in a language they didn't know he spoke. He listened to their conversations and learned from them. In the adventure he claims that he would never hurt a woman for making a mistake (namely, even for cheating!) because he listened and now he knows better.

I'll have to read the sagas over again to fully savor every awesome detail. It is definitely a repeat read.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Legendary Fathers

When I set out to make a little list of traditional stories about fathers, I thought it was going to be a cake walk. Mothers die a lot more often in story, right?... And yet, once I started really looking, and setting some criteria, the pool got smaller and smaller.
I wanted stories where the father is good (there goes Hansel and Gretel), where he takes an active role in the story (there goes Cinderella), and, most importantly, where the father does something for his child(ren), rather than being the noble image to thrive for. I wanted fathers that are good examples of parenthood, likable, and on top of all of that, have good stories. They don't throw their daughters at strangers, they don't abandon their families, and they don't sit on a pedestal waiting for their sons to measure up, or for their daughter to explain why she loves them more than salt.
Well, damn.

Stories of this kind, I had to note once again, do exist. Quite a few of them, actually. But they are not always obvious, and not always easy to find. In honor of Father's Day today (in the USA and Hungary anyway), here is a list of my favorites.

Zal
Zal takes the prize. He always takes the prize, if you ask me. This amazing white-haired prince from the Persian Book of Kings is the main hero of one of the stories I love the most in the world. On top of starring in the oldest known (and best) version of the Rapunzel tale, he is also an excellent father figure. He is abandoned by his own father early on; and when his wife is about to die in childbirth delivering their son, Zal makes a stand: "My father abandoned me once; I am not giving up on you." And then he summons a giant mythical bird who teaches him to perform the world's first C-section with his own hands, saving wife and baby. Damn right.

King Metabus
The father of Camilla, one of the most famous characters from the early legends of Rome. Running from his burning city with his infant daughter, he has to cross a river. Tying the daughter to his spear, he throws her across the water before he also flees swimming. Not a very safe way of parenting (don't try this at home), but he gets points for paternal badassery.

Fionn Mac Cool
Once when I was telling the story of the Birth of Oisín in 10th grade, and got to the point where Fionn finds his son in the woods five years after his pregnant wife is kidnapped, a teenage girl started sobbing. The reunion of father and son is one of the most emotional scenes in the Fianna legends. Good fatherhood, by the way, runs in the family; there are also lovely moments between Oisín and his son Oscar (and also between Fionn and his grandson).

Peleus
Okay, so his marriage with Thetis is kind of forced, and definitely not romantic, but in at least one version of the story Peleus does display some serious paternal instincts. In the story I included in my book about how Achilles gained his superhuman speed, Peleus finds Thetis burning the baby over the fireplace at night, and freaks out, like a worried parent should. Turns out Thetis was going to make the child immortal (as an alternative to dipping him into water), and she flees after the ensuing fight, leaving daddy stranded with baby Achilles. Peleus takes the child to his own father figure, Chiron the centaur, to be healed from the burns.

Heimer
And finally, talking about stepfathers: Gotta give a shout-out to the guy who saves one of the most often forgotten legendary babies. Aslög, the daughter of Brünhilde and Sigurd, is spirited away after her parents' death by Brünhilde's stepfather, Heimer, who hides her in a lute, and travels from town to town, playing soothing music to keep the baby quiet and fed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Story of a Story

This is not the first time it has happened. Being a storyteller comes with its own mysterious mechanics: Stories find you, one way or another, and sometimes, when you don't notice them the first time, they will find you again.
A couple of years ago (seven or eight) when I was just starting to dip my toe into the pool of storytelling, I found a book on my grandparents' shelf. They borrowed it from someone, and it was a slender little volume on the folklore of our region (the wetlands of nothwestern Hungary). I found a story in it about fairies; how they used to live in the marshes, and help people fish, and pee in the water to make gold (that's right, fairy pee). There was also a story about why they had to leave our world, and when they will return. It told about one fairy girl who wanted to stay, and was transformed by the Queen into a water lily so she could watch over people from the waters. I was enchanted by the story, but I was not yet in the habit of recording things I read, so I let it go.
Some time later I went to the USA for the first time on the Kellner Scholarship, and I immersed myself in the world of storytelling (that's how this blog came to be). One thing I did was conferences; I designed a workshop on Hungarian storytelling, in which I mostly told folktales to many audiences. When I was picking the stories from an endless pool of possibilities, I returned to the tale about the fairies leaving, because I thought it was unique, and yet something people could relate to (see: Lord of the Rings). Because I was in the USA at the time, I couldn't find the original book, and the story was not on the Internet either. I had to tell it from memory.
After I came home, I started looking for the book and the story, but by that time I didn't remember the title or the author. My grandparents didn't either; and it turns out there is a surprising number of books written on the folklore of our area. The books I vaguely remembered turned out to be not the one I was looking for. For years, every once in a while when I remembered the story, I went on binges of trying to figure out what the book was, and where the story is, but I never found it.
Skipping ahead to yesterday. I am in Hungary for the summer, and I was walking down the hill to visit my grandparents. There is a castle in their backyard (that's right) that has been remodeled into a school and a library. I stopped by the library; I have been frequenting it since I was a kid, and I wanted to say hi to people. Turns out they are going to rebuild, and they were in the process of weeding out their stock of books, and throwing out the ones they don't need anymore. They allowed me to go through the stacks of books taken out; even better, they had already put some of them aside for me, the ones that had something to do with folktales or storytelling. One of them was a book on local folklore; I opened it up at the Prose chapter, just in case.
And there. Was. My story.

I learned pretty early on that you can't just go out, gather up a handful of stories, and call them your repertoire. You will read an entire collection; you will mark some of the stories that you like... and then you will never use them again. But some time later, one afternoon while doing the dishes, you will suddenly think "what was that one story with the water lily in it..." and you will go through your notes, and you will realize that it was not even one of the stories you marked before. It was something completely different. And yet that is the one that finds you again in the end.
Don't ever pretend that you are the one doing the choosing.