March 2010


It’s a problem that any historical author faces–or should do if they are doing their job and their research.

We all know that life wasn’t terribly political correct in times other than ours. I shall skirt around the fact that political correctness can be a) rather subjective and b) still a problem today.

But go back, even a very short time and you have to deal with all sorts of problems.

(more…)

Last year I posted here about my experiences as part of the acquisitions team for the I Do charity anthology of stories in support of marriage equality. I focussed on making a story as ‘sellable’ as possible, maximising the chances of a prospective publisher not saying ‘No thank you’ almost within the first thirty seconds. Having been lucky enough to work on the follow up, I Do Two, I wanted to share another aspect of the experience – authors who ‘add value’ to a project and those who don’t.

Now, I’d like to say that all of our authors (and the editors, proofers, etc) added value to I Do Two because they gave their time and talents freely, for no other recompense than ‘doing the right thing’. So who didn’t move the project forward? Same as last time – the prospective contributors who hadn’t read the submissions guidelines well enough (at all?) and whose stories we spent time reading only to discover they were completely unsuitable. You know, if we said ‘no fanfiction’ that really meant we didn’t want it. We got it.

Conjugated irregular verbs as used by unhelpful authors, number 1:

They wrote fanfic.
You wrote fanfic.
I wrote homage.

We said ‘M/M, F/F, Bi and transgender stories are welcome. There is no strict theme, but we have certain things we do *not* want to see, for example stories which undermine the purpose of the anthology’. Perhaps we should have specified that we didn’t want stories which involved a woman having a heterosexual extra-marital dalliance or a woman having an affair with her pet dog. ‘Cos we got them.

Conjugated irregular verbs as used by unhelpful authors, number 2:

They have no right to break the rules.
You should keep to the rules.
The rules don’t apply to me.

So ‘adding value’ means not wasting other people’s time. It means being professional and getting edits/contracts back on time so there aren’t any holdups. It might mean going above and beyond the call of authorly duty, rather than relying on everyone else to do the slightly distasteful business of selling.

Conjugated irregular verbs as used by unhelpful authors, number 3:

He should do more to sell our book.
You should organise that chat to sell our book for the date I can attend.
I was far too busy with other more important things to turn up for the chat but I’ll take the royalties.

I’ve been privileged to have stories in collections with lots of different authors and some of them have been shining examples of ‘going above and beyond the call’. They’re the ones who organise the chats and blogspots, who produce the giveaways, who man the stands at events and press flyers and bookmarks into the hands of all and sundry. They’re the ones who help get the book sold.

And they never patronize other authors.

Conjugated irregular verbs as used by unhelpful authors, number 4:

She made a fool of herself slagging off that reviewer.
You shouldn’t take it so hard when you get a bad review.
No-one should insult my story like that!

I’ve been hugely privileged in working with my book-bedfellows (come on, how could anyone get a better start than being in a book of stories alongside Lee Rowan and Erastes?) and I look forward to working with many more good eggs.

by Ruth Sims

I’ve noticed that when most of us, myself included, use the term “writer” what we really mean is “writer of fiction.” But that’s really just a category of writer. “Writer” also refers to the journalists, biographers, playwrights, picture book authors, literary authors, erotica authors, sports writers, etc. In forgetting this, we also forget that across the world, both today and historically, writers have been persecuted, imprisoned, even killed for daring to express themselves.

Most of us, again including myself, write to please readers, to entertain, and perhaps even to teach them of other cultures, or historical times, or our ideas of the future. Most of us don’t have to worry that police will search our homes and confiscate our computers or typewriters or

unpublished manuscripts. Sure, that happened in Hitler’s Germany, or Communist Russia or Franco’s Spain or the Spanish Inquisition (well, ok, they didn’t confiscate the computers or typewriters during the Inquisition but still…), but it’s so unlikely to happen today that we don’t even think about it. We go happily forward with our works in progress, without ever considering how precious and tenuous freedom of expression is.

I’ve been musing on this lately, after having read the memoirs of Reinaldo Arenas (more on him in a minute). I’ve decided to put together this little reminder for myself and anyone else who is interested, readers as well as writers.

Most people are at least familiar with the name of Salmon Rushdie, whose long, complicated literary novel, “Satanic Verses,” set off a tsunami of controversy which led to threats not only on his life but on the lives of those associated with the publication of the book. The book was banned or burned in several countries. For many years Rushdie lived under police protection.

Salman Rushdie: Threatened, book banned and burned

In Spain under Franco, playwrights, novelists, and poets were routinely imprisoned; some were tortured. Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca was hounded by the government–and then he vanished. It’s believed he was murdered by soldiers of Franco’s government, though his body has never been found.

Spanish poet/ dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca 1898-1936 believed to have been murdered

“Before Night Falls” is the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban poet and novelist. Like Lorca, he was a gay man in a country where gays were routinely imprisoned and tortured. He was also a creative mind, something every despot hates, and he was also critical of Castro. He was harassed, his writings were destroyed. Some of his works were smuggled out and published abroad to great acclaim, but he was either in prison or living in abject poverty, unable to read his own books because they were banned in Cuba. At one point he was imprisoned in the Morrow dungeon. By falsifying his name slightly he managed to escaped Cuba in 1980 during the boatlift.

Cuban novelist/poet Reinaldo Arenas 1943-1990

Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was jailed in 2008, for daring to write about political reform and human rights and charged with trying to “subvert state power.” He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Before that, in the late 1990’s he spent 3 years in prison.

Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, 55, Imprisoned

In Camaroon, singer/songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga was fined $640,000 (US dollars) for writing a song critical of Cameroonian President Paul Biya and sentenced to three years.

Cameroon Singer/Songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga Fined & jailed

Two writers who paid with their lives: Russian journalist Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted from her Grozny apartment in Chechnya and murdered in July 2009, because she wrote about horrendous violations of human rights.

Natalya Estemirova Russian journalist 1958-2009 Murdered

Mexican anthropologist and author Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez Ávila, was beaten to death in Guerrero state in July 2008; he frequently criticized government violations of free speech. The world has treated his death with a thundering silence.

Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez Ávila Mexican writer & anthropologist Beaten to death, 2008

As a young author, Victor J. Banis, whom most of us know and respect, learned first-hand about US government interference, censorship, and harassment. Get a copy of his memoir, “Spine Intact, Some Creases.” It’s funny, frightening, and eye-opening. And it even has recipes.

Just a few of the countries where writers have been persecuted, prosecuted, imprisoned or killed in recent years: Cuba, South Korea, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Somalia, Sri Lanka. The work of the authors targeted include every kind of writing: short stories, plays, novels, journalism.

It’s such a serious, widespread problem that there is a global organization, Cities of Refuge, which has created a network of safe cities where there are designated safe streets or houses specifically for persecuted writers. One such city is Arhus, Denmark. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania there is a street: Sampsonia Way on which there are several safe houses. An annual grant from the estates of novelist Dashiell Hammett and playwright Lillian Hellman is given specifically for the help and support of persecuted writers.

And lest we in the US think “it can’t happen here,” I offer a snippet of history that happened in my lifetime. In the 1950’s, during the Cold War, there was a senator named Joe McCarthy’s, a power-hungry idealogue (how often those two go together!). His House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) went after filmmakers, playwrights, novelists, poets, and anyone else who had an imagined or youthful and long-vanished tie to Communism, or who wrote antiwar literature, such as Dalton Trumbo’s incomparable “Johnnie Got His Gun.” FBI dossiers were kept on thousands of US citizens. Careers were destroyed by suspicion and questioning. Lifelong friendships were ruined because people were bullied and threatened into naming names to the committee. Gifted authors and playwrights were forced into exile, or they worked anonymously, or, as Trumbo did, publishing under another author’s name. If McCarthy had not been stopped, United States writers today might be living in a very different atmosphere. No one knows how far he would and could have gone. Could it happen again? You bet, especially when it comes to books dealing sympathetically with gay issues, people, and stories. If you doubt, watch the news and see what the intolerants in the country are up to.

It’s said the pen is mightier than the sword. The pen and the sword have been replaced by computers and guns, but it’s still true. Free expression, especially the written word, is anathema to any dictator, whether religious or secular. It’s a two-way street, of course. I have the freedom to write a gay love story, and someone else has the freedom to write “Can Sarah Palin Save America?”

A good source, always up to date, is the PEN: A World Association of Writers http://www.internationalpen.org.uk/

Want to learn more? Go to http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/10/11/banned-censored-harassed-and-jailed

and read about the 34 writers from 19 countries who received the Hellman/Hammett grants in 2009.

So whether you write, read, or both, appreciate and celebrate the freedom to make your own choices. And take a moment to think about the past and present writers who take their freedom and sometimes their lives in their hands with every word they write.

Ruth Sims is a liberal Democrat born and raised in the conservative Republican US heartland, surrounded by cornfields. Was it something in the water?

She has one novel in print: “The Phoenix,” from Lethe Press 2009. Another is under consideration: “Counterpoint.” She is proud to have a short story, “Legend of the Mountain Ash,” in the just-released “I Do Two” anthology to benefit marriage equality. A fun and exciting new venture is short story ebooks released by Untreed Reads. The first is The Lawyer, the Ghost, and the Cursed Chair. Only $1 for a story that will make you laugh. She has six novels in different genres, in various stages of development. If she lives to be 140 she may get them all finished. Website: http://www.ruthsims.com. Sign up for the newsletter on the front page. She loves to hear from readers. Ruth.sims@gmail.com

One of the stories I’m working on at the moment is set in the Tang Dynasty, arguably the cultural high point of China’s history and a time when paper money began to be used for large transactions rather than the cumbersome strings of cash (also known as coppers) that most people used as currency. One of my characters, a sword-smith in the southern provinces, is mistrustful of the newfangled paper money offered to him by a noble from the capital Chang’an and prefers the reality of copper cash. For his sake, I’ve dug through my collection of Chinese coins to present a brief overview of the development of hard currency in China.

The first types of currency in use in China during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC) were cowry shells and farming implements. Towards the end of the dynasty, symbolic tokens made of bronze, copper, or iron in the shape of spades, hoes, and knives were used in transactions.


Here’s a (modern fake) example of a round foot spade coin (the more usual form has a square foot) of the type found in the city of Lin in Shanxi during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Lin was inhabited by non-Han (mainland Chinese are mostly Han, though about 20% of the population are from ethnic minorities or mixed ethnicities) people and traded with the tribes of what is now Inner Mongolia. The city was razed to the ground by the Qin army.

Under the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi, 221-210 BC), the Qin state annexed its fractious neighbours. Though Shi Huangdi is a controversial figure at the best of times (he is vilified for the Burning of the Books and the mass execution of Confucian scholars who disagreed with his beliefs), there’s no denying his incredible achievements: He ordered the construction of the Great Wall, built 4700 miles of roads linking the provinces, standardised weights and measures, imposed a single currency, and perhaps most importantly, imposed a single script, which is still in use today.

It was during Shi Huangdi’s reign that the round copper coin was introduced as standard. Round to symbolise Heaven with a square hole in the centre to symbolise Earth, the hole also enabled several cash to be strung together to create higher denominations. A string of 1000 cash was the equivalent of one tael (liang) of silver or 24 zhu (or 2400 grains of millet!). The most common coin was the half-tael (ban liang), which circulated until it was replaced by the wu zhu in 118 BC.

The wu zhu (wu means ‘five’) is the most common coin in ancient China, cast continuously from 118 BC-617 AD. Its design didn’t change at all during that time, and so it’s very difficult to date wu zhu coins with any degree of accuracy.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) introduced paper money and promissory notes as well as ‘food tickets’ for the military. Soldiers could buy bills worth a certain amount of grain in their home towns, then exchange the food ticket for the equivalent value of grain when they reached their provincial posts. Merchants could buy ‘flying cash’—certificates issued by the government for specific amounts that could then be redeemed for the same value in hard currency at any provincial treasury in the empire.

The first printed paper money was issued from Sichuan in 1024 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Rapid economic expansion brought a heavy demand for coins—in 1073, six million strings of 1000 cash were cast—and paper money went some way towards relaxing the burden of the mints. Most of my coins date from the Northern and Southern Song dynasties (960-1279), due not only to the large amount of cash in circulation but also because the vast majority of my collection was bought in and around the city of Hangzhou, the former capital of the Southern Song.

At this time, coins often didn’t have anything minted on the reverse. On the obverse is a standard formula of four characters in Seal script, Grass script, orthodox script, or a combination of two or three scripts (it’s impossible to date a coin purely on the basis of the script employed). The characters on coins are read top, bottom, right, left. The first two characters are the name of the emperor (usually his reign name rather than his temple name, which enables more specific dating), and the other two characters indicate that the coin is currency (the final character is always bao, which means ‘treasure’).

For example, the coin shown above dates from the time of the Northern Song emperor Zhenzong (998-1022) during the years when Zhenzong’s reign title was Tian Xi (1017-1021). The characters are written in orthodox script: Tian Xi Tong Bao. This is an iron coin, which helps us determine where it was cast. There were around seven mints in China at this time, and the three mints that cast iron coins were all located in Sichuan.

Here’s a coin from the time of Emperor Shenzong (1068-1085), minted in the first part of his reign (1068-1077). The characters are written in Seal script: Shen Zong Yuan Bao.

This is a coin from the reign of the same emperor, but from a slightly later date when his reign title was Yuan Feng (1078-1085). Again the characters are written in Seal script: Yuan Feng Tong Bao.

This is an interesting coin from the Chong Ning regnal period (1102-1106) of Emperor Huizong (1101-1125). The characters are in orthodox script: Chong Ning Zhong Bao. This is actually a 12th century counterfeit made in bronze rather than iron—it’s probably a provincial copy rather than government issue.

Unfortunately I have no Yuan or Ming dynasty coins, which mostly follow the same pattern established by previous dynasties, sometimes including the symbol of the provincial mint on the reverse of the coins. However, I do have a decent amount from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), whose emperors came from Manchuria. Qing coins are the most straightforward of all Chinese coinage, as most of the emperors used only one reign title on the coins—and the reign titles are the names Westerners are most familiar with, e.g. Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong, etc. On the reverse of all Qing coins we find the mint marks in Manchurian script and later in both Manchu and Chinese:

Obverse: Qian Long Tong Bao (Emperor Qianlong, 1736-1795). Reverse: Boo Yuan (Beijing mint, Board of Public Works).

Obverse: Wen Zhong Tong Bao (Emperor Xianfeng during the reign title of Wenzhong, 1850-1861). Reverse: Boo Fu (Fuzhou mint in Fukien province).

Obverse: Wen Zhong Tong Bao (same emperor/reign title as above). Reverse: Er Shi Boo Fu (20 cash, Fuzhou mint). The Manchu script is echoed by Chinese characters.

Charms

Emperors and mints also issued charms for religious or propagandising reasons. Most of the charms in my collection date from the Qing Dynasty, such as this one issued by Emperor Daoguang (1821-1850).

Although it says Dao Guang Tong Bao on the obverse, this is a charm minted for internal use within the imperial palace rather than general circulation. As such, it’s a piece of propaganda rather than currency, as on the reverse we see the characters Tian Xia Tai Ping (‘An empire at peace’). Daoguang was a weak, indecisive ruler whose son Xianfeng had to deal with the Taiping rebellion, which makes the phrase on this coin rather ironic.

Other charms have religious motifs such as these two examples featuring the animals from the Chinese zodiac and the eight trigrams.

Charms like these could be worn or hung on strings inside or outside the house as protection against evil influences and bad qi.

I recently bit the bullet, coughed up my forty quid, and joined the Romantic Novelists Association. (Please note – the qualifications were just about length of book published and type of publisher, nothing to do with whether it was het or gay material.) So, when it was time for the bimonthly lunch of the local chapter (why does that make us sound like Hell’s Angels?) this Tuesday gone I didn’t feel quite so much of an intruder.

Not that they’re ever anything less than welcoming – they’re a lovely lot, mainly ladies of a ‘certain age’ (and that includes me and I was the youngest present) with one or two gents. We didn’t have a speaker this time, so we took it in turns to talk to the rest of the group about the books we’d read recently – good and bad. I praised Dominic Hibberd’s excellent biography of Wilfred Owen, and was less than polite about a novel I’d had from the library (the third book in a series and woefully self-indulgent and ‘clever’ whereas the first two had been light hearted and witty). No names, no pack drill, in re the latter.

We talked exclusively about print books and it was interesting to hear people level the same criticisms against the bad ones they’d read recently – poor editing, unappealing characters, porn without plot – that get levelled against e-books (more of which anon). It was particularly interesting to find out that three people present reviewed for the Historical Novel Society. Charlie will have to mind her p’s and q’s in the future.

The chat is always good with these lads and lasses, lots of interest and enthusiasm and the continual question “Are you writing at the moment?” Beware how you answer such things if you’re in a similar position – I was explaining to Angela and Geoffrey about the Cambridge boys, what sort of books they were, e-book before print and all that. The next thing I know, Angela has me down to speak at the next meeting about a) e-publishing and b) gay romance. (That’s me, a real sucker for saying “Yes, I’ll do that, no problem”.)

I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ll be keeping the venue and date secret just in case anyone decides to gatecrash…

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