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Animals Carry the Magic in Jaguar Paloma

In fiction, people are driven by motivations that have to be carefully explained and that are required to make more logical sense than happens in reality. So, when you're writing magical realism, how do you introduce magic? In my new novel, Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar, animals fit the bill. Without too many spoiler alerts, here are some of my favorite animals:

  • Crows are harbingers of guilt and entrap a key character
  • Insects descend on the village and carry away chicks
  • Monkeys steal the wigs from brides and carry them like babies in the jungle
  • Goats being driven to market won't leave Paloma's side, with dire consequences
  • Ducks react to Paloma and stockpile eggs like the opposite of cannon balls.

There are many more examples and I hope you'll enjoy discovering them in Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar.

 

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A Personal Story in a Fictional Land

Balcony in Colombia. Photo by JW

Though Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar is set in the jungles of Colombia, it's an intensely personal story of my actual life.

 

For example: I am a single-mother-by-choice and so have experienced firsthand the ridiculous stigma put on single mothers. I've been assaulted nine times in my life, though never raped, and so am part of the global community of assault survivors, like the women of Tartatenango. I live in California and have experienced firsthand the anxiety that's caused by drought and extreme weather. That's also why this book is set in Calexicobia: an entirely fictional place, but one in which my personal location – California – can be part of the story, not exclusively someone else's country. And the intense love between women, sexual or otherwise, is one of the cornerstones of my life as a bisexual and a radical feminist.

 

Here are some other key ideas from a recent "Interview with the Author": Read More 

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#MeToo in Macondo: New Novel is an Homage to Gabo's Women

The author at the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Museum, the house where he was raised by his grandparents in Aracataca, Colombia.

My novel Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar has been inspired by the Colombian classic.

 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the finest books ever written, in my opinion. I have read it five times and the last time through, the relationships and positions of the women started to jump to the foreground. Here's where it took me, and how some of my new novel, Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar, has been inspired by it:

 

Legitimacy's Paper and Cake

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's (Gabo's) novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in the town of MacondoPilar Tennara, the saloon keeper, and Ursula, the matriarch of the Buendia family, were among the founders of the town. They had walked through the swamp together before insisting that Ursula's husband stop their wandering and settle. Ursula gave birth on the way, so I had always assumed that the two women grew close as a result.  Read More 

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Magical Realism Emerges in the New Book

Art on a hotel wall in Colombia. Photo by JW

My new novel, Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar, is in the genre of magical realism.

This is my first volume of magical realism. It's a style I love to read and have always longed to write. And it has been creeping into my writing over the years. For example, in The Mandrake Broom the protagonist doesn't age like others do because of a potion given to her by her mother. In A Slender Tether, the doctor in "The Gong Farmer's Tale" is sealed up in a cave by a bear. There is a tiny bit in Straight Uphill when an extraordinary people arrive to honor a hero of World War I. But this is the most extensive use of magical realism in my writing to date, and it was absolutely the most fun I have ever had writing anything.

 

Here are some of my favorite visuals from Jaguar Paloma and the Caketown Bar

  • I love the monkeys in the trees with the wigs, the way they cradle them like babies.
  • I think Dr. Valdez is so precious. The image of this waist-high light, his bioluminescent hands moving towards across a dance floor. That's the image that made me want to include this character. Read More 
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Cosmic Brides and the Dancing Dead

Latest sighting of women in the past: spirts honored in early Europe were willies -- girls and young women who died without giving birth and therefore donated their fertility to the good of the agrarian community. These willies spent "their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests" the way living girls did. Also honored was the Cosmic Bride.

 

Here are some great visual images and tidbits from The Dancing Goddesses by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

 

"There existed a very special group: young women born into the clan who have died before having any children – hence not ancestors of the living but still belonging to the community. Most important, they have not used their natural store of fertility. So, people reasoned, if we're especially nice to them, they might bestow their unused fertility on us. Because unmarried girls in the living community spent much of their time singing and dancing together,  Read More 

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Katharine Tynan, Author of the Irish Renaissance

Always on the lookout for under-represented women, I have found Katharine Tynan in "The Irish Identity: Independence, History, and Literature" taught by Dr. Marc C. Conner, Washington and Lee University, The Great Courses Plus.

 

A prodigious writer, Tynan (23 January 1859 – 2 April 1931) penned more than 100 novels, five autobiographical volumes and several volumes of poetry, but is most frequently mentioned because of her substantial influence on William Butler Yeats.

 

"In sowing the seeds of the renaissance of Irish culture, Hyde, Russell, and Yeats were joined by another figure, the poet and novelist Katharine Tynan, a good friend of Yeats and a prolific author whose career spanned many decades. She was an important poet even before Yeats, having published two volumes of poems in the 1880s and more than a dozen books in the 1890s," Conner says.

 

Her poem 'Any Woman', expressed the centrality of the woman figure in Irish mythology."

 

"Tynan and Yeats met in 1885 and already she had formed a weekly evening gathering over literary conversational ideas, a sort of small literary salon of Dublin writers. She and Yeats soon became confidants and exchanged many letters over the years. As Yates emerged as a young poet, and then became a major poet...he would try his ideas out on Tynan, gauge her responses, and he formed many of his aesthetics of poetry through his correspondence with her," according to Conner. Wikipedia suggests that Yeats "may have proposed marriage and been rejected, around 1885."

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Why Nuns Make Great Characters in Historical Fiction

Recently occurred to me that...

A few great things about having nuns as characters in historical fiction is that:

  • It can be assumed that they are better educated than their neighbors and so capable of more. They could be one of the few in the story who could read a manuscript or a secret ledger. They can read edicts for the village, putting them in a position of power, and letters for the individual so they are privy to information that others won't possess.
  • They have been brought up to be leaders. They organize things and investigate/snoop/assist so there's an excuse for them being the center of attention, or one of the key powers in the story.
  • Nuns have more of their own agency and freedom to move about the village and surrounding area which makes it easier for her to move through the story, unencumbered.  They visit the sick and isolated, and so can be a conduit for information or communication from afar.
  • They are also protected by a level of sanctity that can lessen the chance of assault, because no one wants to write about that.
  • Nuns are excused from the typical social or sexual obligations women face with men and so can co-exist with men in a story without coupling up.
  • It is reasonable for a nun to be an orphan or a cast-off from her family, or at the very least 'stationed' away from her family, so you can get away with a truncated backstory. They have fewer resources to call upon (no father/brother/sister to come to the rescue) which can increase tension in the story and keep this character focused on/dependent upon the protagonist.
  • Her room and lodging can also be extremely sparse so there doesn't have to be a lot of description of decoration and dressing.

So, I think nuns are very handy.  However, the downside is that  Read More 

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The Famine History Forgot

At one point reading The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, by William Rosen, (Viking, 2014) I threw my hands up and asked the ceiling "can't these people ever catch a break?" Famine, flood, villainy, greed, war, pestilence -- in wave after wave -- hit Northern Europe leaving millions dead and half of the arable land of the entire region washed away forever.

 

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century (in a new edition given a new subtitle A Story of Weather, War, and the Famine History Forgot, with a reference to Game of Thrones) is solid scholarship in lively writing.

 

Here is the tragic chronology:

  • In the 1300s, both the King of England and the rebels of Scotland practiced scorched earth warfare: they marched into an area, took the food they needed, then burned all the farms, barns, mills and pastures behind them.
  • For four centuries previously, the Medieval Warm Period had doubled the population of Europe and turned the people from self-sufficiency to reliance on trade.
  • But in 1315 – 1316 it rained relentlessly, basically two years without sunshine, with terrible flooding and massive soil erosion, followed by bitter winters when even the Baltic Sea froze. Two years of harvests failed, and since 80% of the population (those not in the aristocracy) relied for 80% of their diet on grain, famine swept through northern Europe.
  • A logical alternative would have been to eat fish, but North Sea herring spoils quickly without being salted. The Catholic Church had a near monopoly on the production and transport of salt and had already filled nearly half the calendar with fish-only days. But without sun there was no efficient way to evaporate seawater to create the salt needed, so the price of salt skyrocketed, and the Cistercians (in particular, but most monasteries generally) profited greatly.
  • In 1318 they finally had a good year with a decent harvest, but in 1319 rinderpest swept through the continent killing 65% of all of the cows, sheep, and goats, followed by sheep liver fluke.
  • 1321 was another year of a terrible harvest, this time from drought.
  • Then they were hit with glanders, a disease that kills horses, mules, donkeys, dogs, cats, and, frequently, humans: nearly half the horses in Europe died between 1320-1322.
  • In 1338, major floods destroyed dozens of towns and villages in central Europe, to be followed by a swarm of locusts that devoured crops from Hungary to Austria to Bohemia, after which an early snowfall destroyed fruit trees and vineyards.


As Rosen says, "The Third Horseman, riding the black horse, carries a set of scales ... a reminder that famine is a matter of equilibrium: of the delicate balance between life and death. The seven years of the Great Famine, and the evil times that accompanied them, are powerful evidence of how sensitive the scales had become, after four centuries of growth, to a sudden shift in the weather." Page 259


Additional Gems: [all quotes from book except for author's notes in brackets]

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"Unsung Heroes of WWII" Includes 3 Women in Resistance

In "Unsung Heroes of World War II" (The Great Courses Plus), Lynne Olson introduces us to three women who played pivotal roles in the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. Olson, a bestselling author of eight books, is the historian whom former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "our era's foremost chronicler of World War II politics and diplomacy."

 

Here are three women who made Professor Olson's list:

 

Andree de Jongh

Known as Dedee, Andree de Jongh founded the Comet Line, the largest and most important escape line smuggling airman from behind enemy lines.

 

Dedee "worked as a nurse for British troops wounded in the fighting. Along with a group of friends and acquaintances, she began to smuggle injured British soldiers out of German-controlled hospitals and take them to nearby safe houses that she had set up. Not long afterward, she traveled secretly to Spain, which, during World War II, was a neutral country" and struck a deal to smuggle fighters through Spain to the coast where they would be flown back to England.

 

"The majority of Comet Line workers were women," Olson says. "Being part of an escape network was probably the most dangerous form of resistance work in Europe. German officials were keenly aware of the value of these airmen to the Allied bombing effort. If escaped line members were caught, they faced torture, the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, and/or execution. It was particularly dangerous for the couriers—most of them young women, many of them still in their teens—who escorted the servicemen hundreds of miles across enemy territory.

 

"The Comet Line would be the largest and most important escape line in occupied Europe. It would be credited with rescuing more than 800 British and American servicemen, getting them out of enemy territory and back to freedom.

 

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Babies Buried Under the Threshold

I swear sometimes I can read a 400-page book and discover only one visual or a single trivial oddity that captures my imagination and makes its way into a new novel. I won't tell you which of these fascinating facts is the one but here's what I gleaned from The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by Robert Fossier, (Princeton University Press, 2010)

 

Best facts first:

  • The fire or hearth went from outside the house to inside sometime between 900-1100 AD.
  • Last rites could be given by laypeople, even criminals, during the Black Death and early Middle Ages.
  • Children who died without baptism or were stillborn were buried under the threshold of the home to prevent demons from seizing it and turning it into a changeling.
  • Women worked salt marshes and salt pans in fishing villages, hard physical work to produce the salt required to preserve food.
  • Churchman San Bernardino of Sienna maintained that a fetus less than 40 days old could be aborted for reasons of health or poverty. Herbal abortion recipes were well known.
  • Wine was not kept from one season to the next. It was either consumed or destroyed.
  • Houses of prostitution were kept by the Church, noted here and detailed in my first book, A Herstory of Prostitution in Western Europe.  

Here are other gems:

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