1) B. is taking me to Germany, Greece, and Turkey for two weeks, so I'll be quite-probably-out-of-touch from tomorrow evening through the 30th. I shall send a lot of email tomorrow, as I don't know what the internet situation is going to be like. As is usual for me, I intend to keep a handwritten trip journal, which I'll type up and post when I get back. As is not usual, B. is a more than decent photographer, so I may actually have accompanying pictures for a change. Or I may not, we'll see how that turns out.
2) I had the oddest experience reading the other day. I cannot recall anything remotely like it.
I was reading the new Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds
, which I would describe as more technically accomplished than her first one but using more genre-standard materials. It's not a bad book-- what it reminds me of more than anything is Janet Kagan's Mirabile
, where you have people on another planet who are going around episodically coping with/finding out more about things from the past of the planet, although in this one the issues involve ways that human cultures have evolved over the planet's long history of settlement rather than the issues of imported plant and animal biology. As with Mirabile
, there's an overall romance plot arc, and the tone is rather soothing. Bad things happen, but this is a society composed of practical, sensible people who respect one another's boundaries most of the time and work together for solutions with as much maturity as they can muster, which makes it comfort reading. Worlds
doesn't have the nifty play-with-all-the-genes fix-it nature that Mirabile
does, but it also doesn't have the confusion and pacing issues which come from being pieced together from short stories, so that about balances out. It's more ambitious than Mirabile
, but I also cannot help but suspect that it began life as an extrapolation from situations occurring at the end of the first post-reboot Star Trek
movie, so that
about balances out.
So I was reading along, humming pleasantly to myself, going, hey, new comfort read, I shall buy this in paperback and file it next to Kagan and read it when I am very upset, and then I got very close to the end of the book, and then this happened. If you don't think she marries him you weren't paying attention at all so I don't count this as a spoiler:
"Then my semilapsed Baha'i mother insisted on a Baha'i wedding ceremony. I warned her that I was well past the age laid down by the Ministry for mandatory parental permission... Dllenahkh presented my mother with the nonobligatory bride price of a quantity of pure gold, which he'd had fashioned into the shape of a hummingbird." (p. 296)
I do not own The Best of All Possible Worlds
. I went to the trouble of copying out these three sentences with citation because, to date, in the entirety of speculative fiction, and I have read a lot
of speculative fiction, those three sentences are the only representation I have ever seen of the culture I grew up in. I was raised Baha'i.
My brain went into overdrive, then, because although this was the first mention in the book of the protagonist's mother's religion, it was not the first mention of the protagonist's mother. In an earlier encounter with the protagonist's mother, the protagonist gives her some gentle romantic advice, because the mother has switched from dating a man to trying to date the man's wife, and the daughter suggests that what they all probably want is a polyamorous triad. Which appears to turn out to be the case.
I left the Baha'i Faith, even though it is composed almost entirely of good and well-meaning people whose basic principles I generally agree with, because they do not religiously permit homosexuality or polyamory. They do not allow sex outside of marriage, and they do not allow gay marriage or marriage to more than one person. If you're gay and you can't handle marrying someone of the opposite sex, you are supposed to remain celibate. There is genuinely not any social shame attached to that in the Baha'i community, and I do mean genuinely. I never had any issues on either a personal or institutional level with any of the Baha'is being nasty to me after I came out, but it turns out that I can't handle discrimination via 'this is just how it is' any better than I can handle people being actively vicious. For one thing, one feels so much worse about how angry one gets in the former case, because the people who are discriminating against you may genuinely love you. So I left.
But they could very well have gotten around to throwing me out anyway if I hadn't, because they do throw people out if it becomes a matter of public knowledge that they have gay sex and don't intend to stop, and I went and got legally married.
So here I was sitting reading this book, and that paragraph happened, and it became a matter of deep and vital importance to me, suddenly, to figure out whether the protagonist's mother's romantic travails could be covered by that handy word 'semilapsed', or whether Lord had not sufficiently done her research... or whether Lord had, in one small paragraph, described a future in which the most painful thing about my childhood religion could, without destroying the religion's essential character, simply and gracefully change.
I spent a very long time
thinking about those three sentences. Yes, Baha'is require permission from any living biological parents in order to get married, no matter the age of the people intending to marry. So that custom is right, and the protagonist is almost certainly refusing to abide by it because it's her mother's religion, not hers, and pointing out that the rest of their culture says she doesn't have to. The religion has, therefore, maintained its customs on this other planet. (The mother very sweetly later on gives her daughter her blessing anyhow, basically 'you didn't ask but you have my permission', which is a thing I have seen Baha'i parents do in those circumstances.) (Before my own wedding, and I mean about fifteen minutes before, it was made very clear to me that, though I had not asked, I did not have my parents' permission. Which I had expected, and which I gritted my teeth and got through, and which remains one of the great uncomfortable conversations of my life.)
So far so good on research and cultural continuity. Buuuuuuuuut. The dowry thing.
Now, in the American Baha'i community, if you were born in the U.S., there's a knowledge of the way the rules of the faith work which goes about like this: there's stuff you do, which every Baha'i in the entire world does. There's stuff the Baha'is who live in Iran, where the religion comes from, do, because they were given special instructions about it. And there's stuff the large and prominent community of Iranian Baha'is in exile (because the religion is illegal in Iran) do, because they don't want to lose track of where they came from and who they were when they could live in their home country. But there's also stuff they stop doing upon leaving Iran, period.
I have never heard of a dowry exchange happening for a Baha'i marriage taking place outside Iran. The accounts I have heard of them happening at all are from Iran and from about two generations back, though I do not know enough about the current state of the Iranian Baha'i marriage customs to know whether that is still a thing. I know
the dowry rules, of course, because they were mentioned to me before coming-of-age and becoming old enough to marry, at fifteen, but they were explicitly described as a thing I would not have to do, did not have to worry about, and which would frankly be kind of weird for me to dig up. Some of us in my youth group talked about doing it in a jokey way as a jewelry gift (and making it mutual, bride to groom's parents, groom to bride's), but if anyone ever did it was kept private and I never found out. Certainly I may have missed something, but dowry really wasn't a living tradition where I came from. Can't say for sure about elsewhere.
, it is a jewelry gift, but there isn't enough information provided for me to tell whether it is meant in the sort of tone we took about it in my youth group, or for me to tell whether the protagonist's family were Iranian Baha'is living in Iran before coming to the new planet, and whether if so they'd have held on to the custom. And you do
get the dowry rules mentioned if you look up Baha'i marriage on Wikipedia or in the various standard reference books.
So I was vacillating between 'I can't tell whether Lord did the right research to know what Baha'is actually do' and 'but what if Lord fixed it
in this thought experiment, what if she imagined fixing it
', and I haven't cried that hard over a book in a while. I cried again writing this. I will probably never be able to think very hard about this without crying, because of the gift of even the possibility of imagining that that could be fixable, someday, that the protagonist's mother could be only semi-lapsed. I spent long enough banging my head against those rules that I know it isn't fixable in the here and now.
Writers, take note: this is the impact three sentences which are not plot-relevant or major character detail can have. This is how closely some of your readers will be looking at those things. And this is why it's important to do your research, and this is what we mean when we talk about representation of diversity in fiction, and this is why being represented in fiction can be so very important.
And this is why maybe you shouldn't worry too much, if you do your research as well as you can do it, and if you mean well and kindly, because as I said I was vacillating, and do you know where that vacillation stopped, between 'I don't think she really knew' and 'she fixed it'?
It came down on I don't give a fuck
, because I have that image in my head now of what it could look like if it were fixed, and I needed that so desperately I didn't know I needed it, and I would not have that in my head otherwise, and I don't know if it's intentional and what the hell ever. Seeing the culture I was raised in represented in fiction that way was just that powerful. Seeing it represented in speculation, in thoughts of its future, has helped with a wound that has been with me for decades.
Thank you, Karen Lord. I don't care whether you meant it. When I get back from Europe, I will buy the thing in hardcover.