Shaman story in Bell Press anthology

I am happy to have a story in an anthology from Bell Press.

Bell Press publishes literary anthologies and operates on the unceded Coast Salish Territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish people.

The Knot Wound Round Your Finger is an anthology on the theme of memory. Memories lost, memories made. What to discard and what to keep? How do we form them and how do they form us? From speculative and historical fiction to memoir and creative non-fiction, each piece explores these fragments of the past and how they trouble us or offer comfort.

Edited by Devon Field

Contributors: Deborah Bean, Mark Blickley, Helen Bowie, Heather Diamond, Benjamin Gardner, Heidi Greco, Bryn Hammond, Geoff Hart, NC Hernandez, Joanna Michal Hoyt, Shereen Hussain, Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim, Vandana Nair, Stephen O’Donnell, Emma Prior, Karen Rollins, Lorraine Schein, Carsten Schmitt, Shanon Sinn

My short story, ‘Ill Spirits’, concerns the memory work a shaman does in a community.

“The stitching Taliat said to Paliap perplexed, ‘A shaman works in grief and love as I work in skin and sinew.’”

I wrote this story because I hadn’t found room in Amgalant, yet, to say enough about shamans, emotions, and spirits as a memory of harm, suffered and inflicted. Late in Two, Temujin comes close:

“Our sane spirits sit at the hearths of their fathers and cause us no disquiet. We don’t have a justice court of God, we have the ghosts of our injustices and they haunt us, and they aren’t just, Borte. They are hurt creatures… Ill spirits are another sort of history, the history of our ill acts. If our spirits can’t be escaped, why, our victims can’t escape. Justice is an artifice. What is actual is emotions.”

I stole a line from him to write ‘Ill Spirits’. I stole the title, with its play on ill as in malign and ill as in sick. In my draft my shaman in the story said after him, ‘Justice is an artifice. What is actual is emotions’, but I gave him his own lines, to press the same point.

The story — as does Amgalant on the belief system of the Mongols — owes heavily to the wonderfully rich study Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon (Oxford UP 1996). For an explanation of Mongols’ understanding of spirit attacks as caused by social harm, often to the most vulnerable, see my post on Mongols and the plague, where I quote extensively from Humphrey and Onon.

While writing, I was aware that shamans have been ill-served by fiction. Zen Cho, in a Roundtable on Faith Depiction in SFF transcribed at Strange Horizons, says this is still the case. So I am out to undo a few misconceptions on the way.

For soft stags and hard does, see Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (St. Martin’s Press 2000).

The Knot Wound Round Your Finger is now available in ebook and paperback.
Order at Bell Press.

New Historical Note

I have a new Historical Note in my Amgalant four-set, which I post beneath.

The original series (Against Walls & Imaginary Kings) have several appendices, while the four-set I kept slimline. As I prepare them for paperback, however, I’ve written an updated historical note for the four-set.

I find the readers’ site Goodreads a useful place to watch what general readers are thinking about Mongols. I pick up the state of play from readers’ reviews of Mongol-subject books, whether scholarly, popular history, or fiction. My overview is addressed to such readers, a response to the kind of questions they express about Mongol history and its historians.

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Historical Note

If you’ve read the novel first, you’ll know that I refer closely to a text, the Secret History of the Mongols, written in the thirteenth century. This primary source stands to my fiction as canon stands to a transformative or fan work: it can’t be changed, and I have to allow for everything in it. A report on my historical accuracy starts there. As for how historical the Secret History is or tries to be, I believe its creators had serious aims to record what was true. Even when the history uses the style of oral epic, this is reserved for people’s speeches; and speeches were committed to memory with the help of poetic techniques. So I do not cut out any details as unlikely, or as too like a story. No history-telling method escapes the effects of transmission. Besides, I am at least as interested in ways the Mongols told their history to each other, in how they imagined their immediate past, as I am in ‘what happened’.

What about my novelist’s imagination? From the Secret History, I give you ‘the truth’ and ‘the whole truth’: meaning, if it’s in there, it’s in mine, and nothing that is in there I leave out of mine. But on the third clause, ‘and nothing but the truth’ – no, a novelist can’t do that with such a puzzle of a thirteenth-century text. I give you much else that isn’t in the original, to extrapolate from its brief glances and explain its shifts in action and in character, so concisely told as to be often enigmatic. The text leaves motives unstated, except as people report them – in its conscientious historicity. Although rich in subjectivities as self-presented or as seen by others, the narrative does not guess at people’s insides. Whereas I am a novelist, and love to construct motive out of an odd sequence of conduct and a few riddles of quotes.

For more on the Secret History, my interpretations of it, and my accounts of how a novelist works with primary source material, see posts on my website amgalant.com, or my craft essay Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.

Onto secondary works. For a bibliography, again, my website can lead you to where I keep my virtual steppe shelves. I like to review Mongol books both scholarly and popular. It’s hard to pick a few works to list here, but I can’t resist the opportunity to mention İsenbike Togan. Togan has chosen often to publish in Central Asian journals in order to support them, and this means her scholarship can be less well known. A specific debt I owe is to archaeologist Gideon Shelach-Lavi for Hoelun’s ‘Great-Antlered Stag’ lesson to her children. But if there is one book I could not have written without, it is Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon. In these pages is found the lion’s share of my research on Mongols’ belief system. The book is anthropology on the twentieth century, but Urgunge constantly refers back to the thirteenth century as the classic age in Mongols’ memory. In any case, history is well fleshed out with anthropology when sources are skimpy.

Let me make a general comment. When I began to research for these novels in 2003, the state of Mongol history was fairly dire. I felt assaulted by my own library. Since then there has been an opening-up of Mongol studies, sometimes called ‘the cultural turn’, that takes into account material history, art history, intellectual history. A sense for culture was exactly what the old standard history, David Morgan’s, lacked: it came across as Eurocentric because it had no idea of interpreting the Mongols through their own culture. The advent of Jack Weatherford in 2004 was a shock, not least to me. What he did invaluably was inject a big dose of anthropology into our historical understanding. Straight historians were hostile at first, but by now there is far more acceptance of Weatherford. As for me, I’m glad I conceived my novels – their gist, and the character of Tchingis – before Weatherford published, or I’d have had an anxiety of influence. The reason I spell him ‘Tchingis’ was to distinguish him in my head as my character in my fiction – to develop him out of, but away from, that library of mine (he is nobody else’s Chinggis: but he is possible, from the evidence). The ‘cultural turn’ is not only about the Mongol Exchange – an update of the Pax Mongolica idea, that looks at exchanges between cultures in the joined-up world under Mongol governance. It is also about cultural awareness in our history-writing. 

Things aren’t as simple as that old work is Mongol-negative and new work is Mongol-positive. Individual historians still differ greatly. In the prehistory of Mongol historiography, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw amazingly positive takes, while a couple of early twentieth-century writers are among my champions. Igor de Rachewiltz in his last interview spoke of his resistance to the new trend, and he remains influential through his Secret History translation for Brill, where his negative views are evident in his translation choices as well as in his commentary. In the popular arena, one of the most negative assessments of Chinggis I have ever anguished over is Frank McLynn’s 2015 biography. I can only say, be aware. Read widely.

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Paperbacks of 1.1 and 1.2 are already available, at least on Amazon. Elsewhere, I hope, soon.

 

sale and news

My ebooks are 50% off in the Smashwords Read an Ebook Sale, March 3-9.
Find them here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/232290

In other news, I had meant to finish several posts for this blog over Jan-Feb — ‘A Bastard Art’, the other three parts of which await me in draft. But I have plunged into full-time work on Amgalant Three. I have ambitions to publish 3.1 in ebook this year or early next — if I throw side projects to the wolves.

Where side projects belong, frankly.

Against Walls in Asian Review of Books

I am honoured to be reviewed by novelist Dmitry Kosyrev in the Asian Review of Books.

‘I happen to know this world: I’ve been to Mongolia three times and, recently, in Russia’s Altai, which is about the same. I know that Bryn Hammond did a miracle of transporting the reader there, but I’ve no idea how she did it (that’s a real compliment from one writer to another). That’s a wolf’s world, whatever it means, a world of strange talk in strange places; it’s in fact another planet.’

“Against Walls” by Bryn Hammond

Under new sails

 

 

 

Our magnificent new covers by Black Kat Design.
Click on the images to read the text.

ebooks and paperbacks out now.

ebooks from:

Amazon US, Amazon UK, or your marketplace
Smashwords and their distributors
Apple iBooks US, UK, or your country
Barnes & Noble
Kobo

Paperbacks from Amazon in these marketplaces: US, UK, DE, FR, ES, IT, JP

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If you have a first edition One and want Two to match, you can contact me — I have a cupboard of the old stock. However, Three already has its cover. Here’s a look:

Scavenger City won’t be out soon. You, dear reader, can speed the process by that classic strategy of Tell Your Friends. Sales of Amgalant help me free myself from other work.

John Caviglia on Amgalant

travelling, talking 1This short entry is to link to a most observant discussion of my historical fiction project by John Caviglia: a post on the blog of Rounded Globe, who have just published my ‘Voices’ essay.

Observant is what I might expect from John Caviglia, who is both a writer (premodern, epic-in-scope historical fiction) and in his past a professor of comparative literature. I particularly enjoy his remarks on Elizabethan theatre-style staging. Certainly I imitated theatre in a few ways. There are scenes where I cease to write in anything other than people’s spoken lines, to be like a play script: because these ought to do, they ought to stand by themselves. And I several times had in mind Elizabethan resemblances. My acquaintance with theatre is largely Elizabethan, let’s face it; and for reasons unspecified I did often want a theatrical air.

“He can tell a hawk from a hatchet flung at his head.” – Jamuqa misquotes Hamlet.

travelling, talking 2

Images
Book art from the Ilkhanlig: a Mongol court travelling, talking…
The Diez Albums, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Published: Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe

VoicesToday my digital book for Rounded Globe, Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe, is published. Available here.

There are two aspects to this essay. Chiefly, it is source criticism – a study of my primary source the Secret History of the Mongols – and on the side, it is a creative writer’s interactions with the body of secondary work on this source.

Academic historians may or may not be aware that outside of other historians and history students, they have a large readership among historical novelists. I’ve become conscious of this since I joined Goodreads: often I look up a history book and find its single review, or its most in-depth review, is from a novelist who engaged with it for her material. These reviews frequently enter into passionate conversation with the historian – as I know I do in the privacy of my home. Novelists rarely hide their investment in their subjects; although this need not mean we do not strive to be fair-minded.

Novelists, inevitably, have a different perspective on the source material (unless a historian moves along the spectrum towards a novelist’s position). We weigh things differently; we seek out things of less concern to historians. Or so I have found in my fifteen years spent with my primary source and the secondary work upon it. I began with no preconceptions (I had not thought about these issues); and at the end I know that my experience, which I write about in this essay, is a case study, that is, a single case, whose applicability to other cases I cannot guess at. Other novelists might nod along, see familiar trends, even an analogue. My source is a peculiar one in its own level of artistry (to an extent it is written ‘like an epic’). No doubt every source is a peculiar one, and every novelist’s engagement singular. I believe in the worth of case studies, and have simply written out my experience: the three-way conversation between source, novelist and historians.

On the specifics of the Secret History of the Mongols, I have reached a few conclusions which are not in the main history books, or the major commentary. I offer these as the arguments a novelist uses for her own purposes. Perhaps she does tend to interpret differently because she is a novelist: I do not say for certain; no doubt her ethos is different, probably her method. I am happy for the chance to make a few arguments, which otherwise I have only had the opportunity to put (persuasively or not – you be the judge) in fictional format, in my set of novels Amgalant. The original argument most likely to catch people’s interest, I imagine, has to do with Temujin’s own contributions to the Secret History: the idea that we have his memories, as he told them, and with this, we have insight into his psychology.

I owe great thanks to Simon Cook, co-founder of Rounded Globe. Firstly, for seeing worth in my Mongol novels; secondly, for seeing value in my account of how I came to write them, and commissioning this essay.

I want to thank…

I’m 50 today and kids, it’s tough to turn 50. I’ve had a questioning week. You’re lucky you’re not getting a post called Futility at Fifty, but instead, by grace, I’m in the mood to thank a few people.

First my sister, without whom. Every book of Amgalant has this dedication:

My sister has been godmother to the book. Amgalant, what’s written and what isn’t written yet, is dedicated to her, with waves from Tem and Jam, and no sight or scent of a goat. In steppe epic, a steed and a sister are your trustiest, most intelligent and indefatigable aid: the hero doesn’t have to be heroic, but these do.

When gloomy in the past week, I browsed writers’ blogs for the harsher side of the writing life. The sad experience is, numbers of writers operate without support from those closest to them – or with active sabotage of their attempt to write. One comment I saw this week I understood: a writer said she found dedications in books hard to read. A few years ago, I did too. You don’t like to confess it. But those dedications that go, ‘my wife lived with this novel for five years, and listened to my instalments every evening at dinner…’ I mean, frankly, you think, poor wife, don’t you? And if you’re me you think, I don’t know how to ask that of another person, even if I believed you should, and I have to believe you shouldn’t. Neither do I happen to know, in person, of writers with this sort of husband; if you do have a significant other like this, value them and for God’s sake don’t ask too much. It can hurt to see dedications. Because of the ones you don’t see: ‘I wrote this alone and nobody helped.’ I felt like that a few years ago, but I was with a man who gave me daily discouragement. I think he sensed – and he was quite right – that the novel was the only thing to have come along that mattered to me as much or more than he did; and it was a shock to him, who had been the centre of my attention. I left the man and kept the book, as any sensible writer does. People don’t write dedications such as that in published books, and so struggling writers only see the nice ones. On blogs, in writers’ groups online, is where you see admissions of the real situation. There are writers who have to function in the total absence of support from husband, children, family and friends. I know how lucky I am to have my sister. Without whom, I’d be a worse person and possibly no writer.

At slight risk of embarrassment to him, I next want to thank Don Jansen, because he’s the perfect reader, of whom we writers dream. Why is he the perfect reader? He’s an intelligent, curious reader who ranges widely, without prejudices. He reads at the high end too but has no genre prejudice; and nor does he avoid the self-published. Bless his socks. While one can count one’s readers on one’s fingers (or at least, readers who don’t wish I were Conn Iggulden – because folks, I never set out to be, I never shall be; live and let live, I wish him well) – in that situation, a single reader can make it feel worthwhile. Sorry to embarrass you, Don.

Thanks to fellow novelists. For instance, I assured Gary, twice, he shouldn’t feel he has to read mine – his subject had been a hook to me but I couldn’t see he had any earthly interest in Mongols – still, he read it on the quiet and surprised me. John, no doubt, is too much of a gentleman not to have returned a read; even so, it was in no way incumbent upon him to read Two.

Thanks to Joseph. It’s hard even to place mine with book bloggers, I think, and therefore, to have his professional reviews, of both One and Two, is invaluable. To be honest I can’t work out how ‘professional review’ is defined in the indie context – I certainly don’t mean paid reviews, which I abhor. Whatever, I know he’s a professional, and his opinion has mattered as much to me, in its own way, as the coveted ‘reader-only’ opinion.

That’s it. I’ll go away and be fifty now. You’ll excuse that I complain about this fact online; I’m a solitary creature and when I talk I tend to tweet or blog.

mucked with

When I was 49, with heavy book on shoulder. I tried to do an imitation-shot after Joy Hester’s ‘Girl with Book on Head’ – which is such an identification-picture for bookish girls – but the shot didn’t work out.
Girl with Book on Head

 

 

 

Finished? Unfinished?

thumbnail Old-Ideal-coverthumbnail Tribal-Brawls-coverA note on my books. Can they stand alone? Do you have to wait for Three for satisfaction? How finished or unfinished is the story?

Answer: One and Two are whole books, with a conclusion to the events in them, and the themes tied up. Read One, and you’ve reached a finish. Read One and Two, and you’ve reached a finish. As for me, if I’m smashed by a bus today, I’ll be upset that I haven’t gotten to tell you my ideas on Temujin’s later life; but I, too, for my comfort, know I have reached a finish.

My instincts operate this way; I wouldn’t myself write an unfinished book, and very far from leave you with a cliffhanger, I’m concerned to give us both closure. I think you’ve a right to insist on that at the end of six hundred pages, and I have no excuses, I’ve had space to see my story and my themes out to an end. [There is a footnote to this. See footnote.]

Also, I want to be free for the next. The next has different demands, and I need the freedom to meet new questions with new answers. Each of my books has a different style — at least to my eyes, which may be hyper-sensitive. It’s a big thing for me about how Temujin changes, how life changes for him, and I’ve got to have an elasticity to capture that.

Footnote

So, what about the sections I’ve issued? Are they finished books? I’d say, #1 Of Battles Past, #2 When I am King and #4 The Sheep from the Goats — yes, these are books in themselves. Only #3 Me and Atrocity I don’t call a book, and I’m dissatisfied with the situation there… a casualty of publishing. By great fortune, The Old Ideal split neatly into halves, both in size and subject; less fortunately, Tribal Brawls had to divide into a third and the other two-thirds. What’s worse, I stuck a facetious title on: Jamuqa must have named Me and Atrocity.

Near misses

Whenever you pick covers, there are those you almost chose or wish were possible to you. So I just have to exhibit a few great images I didn’t use.

For a book titled ‘The Sheep from the Goats’ and to do with Mongols, the above was an obvious resort. It’s quite famous: painted by a Zhao Mengfu in the Yuan Dynasty (that’s the Mongols in China), it’s thought to be a comment on the question, whether or not to work for the Mongols. There were Chinese scholar-officials who refused to serve under the Mongols and kept an ivory-tower aloofness; others argued for useful service, yes, even with barbarians in charge. After ten years in the ivory tower Zhao Mengfu agreed to join the court of Khubilai Khan, and defended his stance against the criticism of peers. His stout, stuffy sheep feels lofty next to his combative, more energetic goat.

 

Another goat I found – in case you’re keen on goats. Here’s a totem-style Yule Goat from Gotland, an 18th-century farm now a museum.

 

 

 

Getting away from goats. When I began to think about animalistic masks, I found this Swiss carnival mask, in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich.

It’s great, but we went to Africa instead. I’ll have to post on the African masks, but it’s a subject new to me.

And here’s what else I found on David with the head of Goliath:

 

A second Caravaggio

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Titian

 

 

 

 

 

And one by a certain Valentin de Boulogne

 

 

 

I did notice, on my search, most Davids were too dainty, too fastidious to touch the head, never mind haul it by the hair, as Caravaggio’s does: they posed beside it with their hands off. Caravaggio, of course, knew about the seamy side of life, wasn’t a stranger to blood. No-one else even thought to try an expression on David’s face like to my chosen Caravaggio.