My diary is my friend

Diary shelf

My diary shelf

My diary is my best friend.
Yes, I do have real, people friends too. And I’m married, and I love my husband. But there are things you can’t tell anyone, and I tell them to my diary. (Since I write in it mainly when I am traveling or unhappy, he complains that it can’t be fair to him. So from time to time I even let him have a page.)
I have been keeping a diary since I was eight. My first entries talk about a trip my uncle and his brother took me on across Louisiana, in the days before the interstate. I tasted lemon meringue pie for the first time in a place called Krotz Springs, took a ferry across the Mississippi, saw Mike the Tiger in his cage at LSU (it’s much bigger now), and met a girl who had six fingers. She seemed especially proud of it. I remember everything about that trip, right down to the wonderful Burma Shave signs! Everything was new to me. I probably would have forgotten it all by now, if I hadn’t written it down in a little brown spiral notebook. I reread that notebook so many times that even though I lost it years later, in New York City, I didn’t even lose the memories. Would I still remember that trip so vividly now without it? I don’t know.

Red Big Chief notebook

My first writing was all done in a Big Chief notebook that we were given at school. It still makes me feel all shivery when I see it because I was so excited about learning to read and write.

Over the years I’ve gone through many different kinds of diaries. When I studied Chinese in college, I even kept a separate diary in Chinese for several years. That was fun! And a good way of making sure no one else would ever read it, possibly including Chinese people as my Chinese was so bad. For a long time I also used my diary as a commonplace book, copying out poems and quotations, and even typing out things from the newspaper or books and sticking them into the pages. Finally I copied so many things that I had to get a separate commonplace book. I’ve had spiral notebooks and hardcover bound ones with acid-free pages, and plastic ones and leather ones and artists’ diaries with thick paper meant for someone who draws much better than I do. Now I have settled on diaries from La Ricerca in Venice. Aren’t they beautiful? I buy several every few years. The pattern is from the mosaic floor of San Marco Cathedral. (By the way, many of the marbles in the cathedral are from ancient Roman quarries that are now mined out. There is no more marble like that in the world.) It’s such a satisfaction writing in my handsome diary that I feel a heavy responsibility not to disgrace its pages. Maybe I should go back to the cheap spiral notebooks.

La Ricerca is one of the last authentic Venice bookbinders

Every woman who keeps a diary probably knows the quotation “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” (Gwendolen in The Important of Being Earnest) My own favorite is “You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. ” (Cecily in the same play)

Mine isn’t, though! It’s just my best friend, always ready to listen.

The story behind the story: Les rois maudits (the accursed kings)

Philip the Fair, King of France

Philip the Fair, King of France

A while ago I read in a French interview with George R.R. Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones, that one of his inspirations for his saga was Les rois maudits [The Accursed Kings], the seven-volume historical fiction series written by Maurice Druon between 1955 and 1977. Apparently Druon wasn’t terribly proud of them, having dashed them off to make money. He went back later and rewrote the first few, which are amazingly well researched.

I love sagas, and as a fond reader of ancient Chinese history, which resembles them somewhat in its vast sweep, fascinating stories, lovable heroes, and sudden brutality, I had enjoyed the Game of Thrones books (in spite of two or three “he looked at her with loathing” in the first book….). So I plunged into the first volume, Le roi de fer [The Iron King] on a plane to the U.S. at Christmas, and just finished the last book yesterday. I feel bereft! That’s what a good saga does to you.

Les rois maudits opens with a bang. The strong, effective king Philip the Fair, grandson of Saint Louis, has united France, dominated the Papacy, which was then installed in Avignon, and rules with an iron fist. Coveting the riches of the powerful Knights Templar, he forces the Pope to declare them heretics, seizes their fortresses, and burns the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay at the stake. The king is watching from his stand.

The Grand Master curses the king for burning innocents

The Grand Master curses the king for burning innocents

Suddenly, the voice of the Grand Master rose through the curtain of fire, and, as if speaking to every single person, hit everyone in the face. With a stupefying force, as he had done before Notre-Dame, Jacques de Molay cried,

“Shame! Shame! You see innocents dying. Shame on all of you! God will judge  you.”

The terrified crowd had become silent. It was as if a mad prophet were being burned.

From this face on fire, the frightening voice declared:

“Pope Clement! Chevalier Guillaume! King Philip! Before the year is out, I call you to appear before the tribunal of God to receive your just punishment! Accursed! Accursed! All accursed till the thirteenth generation of your race!”

And before the year is out, the pope, the chief prosecutor Guillaume de Nogaret, and the king do indeed die.

On this spot, Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, was burned on the 18th of March 1314

“On this spot, Jacques de Molay, last Grand Master of the Order of the Temple, was burned on the 18th of March 1314”

In real life, as in the book, the Grand Templar met his end with great courage, and the common people collected his ashes with reverence. Today, in Paris, you can see the plaque marking this spot on the side of the Pont Neuf.

to be continued

Where is Shakespeare at home?

Local park entrance

Local park entrance

When I was fifteen, my parents moved to Appalachia and I entered the worst period of my whole life so far–three years of high school where I was miserably unhappy, as well as poor and left out. I was terribly sorry for myself and didn’t look around much except to snub everything around me. What a bunch of yokels! The boys my sisters had crushes on had twangy, hick accents I could not take seriously, and the snobbism of the local high society toward my family didn’t bother me at all–the idea that anyone from this God-forsaken place thought they should be snooty was hilarious.

Gun shop at a local antiques mall

Gun shop at a local antiques mall

I have to admit I have never totally gotten over the prejudice of those impressionable years. Whenever I return (my mother never left), it still comes flooding back–how it felt to be fifteen and trapped in a place I hated. Let’s face it, fifteen-year-olds are not known for their judgment and tolerance.

Hundreds of coal cars standing idle for years

Hundreds of coal cars standing idle year after year. This is one of the main roads through town

By many measures, the town has become worse since then. First, it is one of the poorest cities in the United States, surrounded by even poorer counties that look up to it as the metropolis. It is possibly the most obese city in the world. Everyone seems to be divorced.

The local undertakers have to deal with snakehandler churches

The local undertakers have to deal with snakehandler funerals

It’s been losing population steadily for the last fifty years as the coal industry atrophies without being replaced. And now, to top off the other bleaknesses, there is a drug epidemic and it has the highest rate of overdoses in the entire United States–900 last year in a town of less than 50,000 people. I see it more sympathetically now.

Tens of thousands of rundown and abandoned houses

Tens of thousands of rundown and abandoned houses

It is a town that receives little immigration from elsewhere, where thousands and thousands of rundown houses stand vacant, covered with boards and peeling tarp. It is also a region of searing white poverty. Most of the population is descended from people whose north-British ancestors came to America in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, migrated west, then stayed in their hills, generation after generation, passing up better lives elsewhere, to be with their families.

One of this famous clan ran the local newspaper when I lived there. He's a good writer

One of this famous clan ran the local newspaper when I lived there. He’s a good writer

When we first moved, my father, a professor of English at the university, liked to recount an anecdote of one of his colleagues there, who was teaching Shakespeare in a freshman English class. Few indeed of those students had parents who had gone to college.

The professor was explaining an obscure phrase. “And this word is obsolete.”

One of the students said, “Not in my holler!”

A holler south of town

A holler south of town

After that I began to notice the eloquence of Appalachians in English. Their speech is lively, inventive, and full of old expressions, proverbs, and strong verbs that have disappeared in other places. There are few places in the United States where people are still speaking the language of their forebears with so little outside influence for two hundred years. The local city hall is full of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish names–even Irish, Swiss, and German family names don’t appear much in this town, much less later ethnic groups. The population of the state is about 96% white, even counting the students of two large universities. Basically, everyone here is descended from an unbroken line of nothing but English-speakers–this has become rare elsewhere in the U.S.

West Virginia University fans sing Country Roads after every victory. The players are from many backgrounds, but the students are still mostly Appalachian.

Early in the summer of 1717, the Quaker merchants of Philadelphia observed that immigrant ships were arriving in more than their usual numbers….They came not only from London and Bristol, but from Liverpool and Belfast, and small northern outports with strange-sounding names–Londonderry and Carrickfergus in northern Ireland, Kirkcudbright and Wigtown in Scotland, Whitehaven and Morecambe on the northern border of England….The speech of these people was English, but they spoke with a lilting cadence that rang strangely in the ear. Many were desperately poor. But… they carried themselves with a fierce and stubborn pride that warned others to treat them with respect…This combination of poverty and pride set the North Britons squarely apart from other English-speaking people in the American colonies….They were all a border people. –Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer


Where Appalachian English is spoken

This winter I went back for a visit to my mother. She’s very fond of theater, and as it happens, theater thrives in the town, maybe because there is only one movie theater, or maybe because, in spite of its small size, the town is the metropolis for four hours around it. So one evening we drove to the college to see “As You Like It” performed by an Appalachian cast. At the second sentence, I was already starting to snicker inwardly. The immortal words of the bard in that unmistakable mountain twang?

My brother Jaques he keeps at school,
and report speaks goldenly of his profit:
for my part, he keeps me rustically at home…

It didn’t help that the actor was pronouncing “Jaques” as “Ja-kyuze.”

The Audrey in the show I saw looked much like this. All the acting was good

The Audrey in the show I saw looked much like this. All the acting was good

But the acting was excellent. As the play went on, and the actors entered and left the stage, the strangest feeling came over me. The people in this production seemed to be speaking their native language, not an obsolete version–they were more at home with Shakespeare’s words and cadences than any actors I had ever seen, including on posh London stages.

Nay, then, God be wi’ you, an you talk in blank verse!

Somehow in these isolated mountains, where little new speech infiltrated for two or three hundred years until television, some of Shakespeare’s rhythms and words seemed to have survived.

More information about Appalachian language 

What Shakespeare sounded like originally: a lot more like Appalachians and Scots than the Queen. For one thing, he pronounced his r’s…. (start at 2:35)

Shakespeare himself is said to have played Adam, a servant in As You Like It

Shakespeare himself is said to have played Adam, a servant in As You Like It

In defense of fairy tales

decoration-1106221_960_720In January 2016, Royal Society Open Science published a paper whose dry title hid a fascinating discovery. Using scientific methods that trace evolution and mutations, researchers discovered that common fairy tales are far, far older than had been realized: older than the Bible.

Many people, including a lot of children’s writers, say they dislike traditional fairy tales. Who needs swooning victim-princesses rescued by handsome princes, marrying a man they just met and living improbably happily ever after? (In France, fairy tales commonly end “and they had many children.” As Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle, “I think, dearest Uncle, you cannot really wish me to be the ‘Mamma d’une nombreuse famille….”)

In fairy tales the bad guy is very easy to spot. Then you grow up and you realize that Prince Charming is not as easy to find as you thought. You realize the bad guy is not wearing a black cape and he’s not easy to spot; he’s really funny, and he makes you laugh, and he has perfect hair. –Taylor Swift
Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels….In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad; but the hero does not go mad. –G.K. Chesterton


When I ask people why they don’t like fairy tales, it often becomes clear that they are not actually talking about traditional tales but about the Disney movie version. For example, one standard complaint is that young women in fairy tales wait around to be rescued by a handsome prince. Certainly Disney’s Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White do this (although I would argue that they also show some fine qualities, not just simple patience). Even Taylor Swift assumes that the bad guys in a fairy tale are obvious. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not:


The horrible Laidly Worm (loathesome snake, or dragon) is actually Childe Wynd’s enchanted sister, Lady Margaret, who fights hard against her fate. A childe was a youth of noble birth. Many fairy tales are about brothers’ and sisters’ loyalty to each other.

As for languorous princesses, in a classic fairy tale you are more likely to find an orphan girl who toils away as a housemaid or cook, or who has to climb a glass hill, or who wanders into a goblin forest to meet the creatures there because everyone is cruel to her at home. If there is a princess, she is probably unfortunate: she works nettles into shirts till her fingers bleed to save her brothers, or becomes a goose girl. A youngest son, whom everyone thinks is stupid and treats badly, is generous to an old woman and suddenly finds himself with a magic gift as a reward. A kind man saves a mouse, or a lion, and the mouse or lion helps him survive.


Fairy tales show us the world of our ancestors, and the concerns in them are basic survival. The stories are set in a time when parents often couldn’t feed their children, when bears and wolves roamed and unknown dangers lay in forests so deep no one knew where they ended. It’s easy to forget that this era was much, much longer than ours and made a profound impression on the human psyche.

  1. Hearn's_tsuchigumo
    People in fairy tales are identified by their occupation: farmers or woodcutters, tailors or fishermen, kings or millers. Most people are poor. Women–including queens–die young from continuous childbearing; the cruel stepmothers you see in many stories are often just teenagers themselves, inheriting hard work for someone else’s children. All kinds of fantastic things can be imagined about strangers and the lands beyond the horizon. Who knows–maybe there are such things as a pot that never stops making oatmeal, or a goose that lays golden eggs, or a house that walks around by itself on chicken legs, or an island that turns out to be alive.
Vasilisa, and in the background, Baba Yaga's house on chicken legs

Vasilisa, and in the background, Baba Yaga’s house on legs

[These stories] open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time. –J.R.R. Tolkien

Philip Pullman has recently published his own new version of some of the best of the original Grimms’ fairy tales, which were collected by the Grimm brothers from old people in the early 1800s. According to Pullman, one of the traits of true fairy tales is that they are pure plot. This is also a feature of the Norse sagas, of ballads and many mythologies. It has affected his writing: “I am using less description that does not move the story on.” In a fairy tale, no one sits around reflecting on life; things are too pressing for that.


Arthur Rackham’s illustration for Hansel and Gretel, 1909. Poor European children still dressed like this in his day.

“Fairy tales,” says Pullman, “are about basic human situations….Cinderella feels that ‘this is a horrible family and I don’t belong here, I am much better than this really and I ought to be a princess’.” He adds, “Children have a profound and unshakeable belief that things have got to be fair.” Fairy tales are satisfying partly because we all know that the real world doesn’t always reward the good and punish the bad.

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As a child, I loved fairy tales. When I was eight or nine, my father, a professor, would take me to the university library sometimes, dropping me off there and going on to his office. (No one would do this nowadays!) For a few hours, I would have the run of the university library’s children’s section.

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After browsing deliciously for a while, I would curl up in a big armchair with a stack of fairy tale books–Andrew Lang, or Tales From Silver Lands, or Hans Christian Andersen, or Japanese Fairy Tales.

Here’s what I learned from them. Taylor Swift would nod in recognition.

1) Most girls are princesses, orphans, or the youngest daughter of three. (I was the oldest of seven….)

2) The youngest son is always the good one. (In real life, the younger son never inherited and had an inferior position in almost every culture.)

3) The king could just give away his daughter as a reward to someone.

All right, not very useful lessons for today. The second one reminds me of Diana Wynne-Jones writing in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Eyes…Blue eyes are always GOOD, the bluer the more Good present… Caution: Do not apply these standards to our own world. You are very likely to be disappointed.) The third one is just annoying, but it is a reminder of women’s status for millennia.

The fairy tale offers you freedoms that reality denies. –Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

But what about these?

1) Terrible things happen even to heroes.

2) A girl is as brave as a boy. (Real fairy tales are astonishingly egalitarian. Think who was telling them.)

3) Dragons, ogres and trolls can be defeated.

4) Being kind is always the right choice.

5) Persevere.

I urge you to give real fairy tales another chance, thinking about their origins, and admiring their headlong narrative that pulls you into the Dark Wood. For example, check out this complete collection in English of the brothers Grimm. And try to tell children the classic stories before they see the Disney versions, the parody versions, the edgy new versions. For a child who hears them for the first time, fairy tales are as new as the day they were first told.

Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. –C.S. Lewis


This article was first published on the website Words and Pictures of the U.K. Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

My own favorite childhood fairy tales were the story of Oisín and the tale of Elsa and the Tontlawald.

Chinese translators: don’t use rhyme in English!


I’d like to ask a rude question. Why do people translate Chinese verse into English rhyme?

Please stop!

Burton Watson called faithfulness to the original and literary merit in the translation the Two Noble Truths for translators. By both of those criteria, translating into rhymed English is a bad idea.

There are only two reasons to read Chinese verse in English translation.

1) To be able to understand the original better.

2) To read literature in English.

Neither purpose is served by a translation into rhymed doggerel– which is all these translations are, no matter how technically accomplished; I have not yet met with an exception.

Oh! I forgot one!

3) For the translator to show off that he or she can rhyme in English

or, to give the translator the benefit of the doubt

4) for the translator to show the “musicality” of the original poem

Translation into English rhyme is a terrible idea for a simple reason. In Chinese, it is easy to rhyme. In English, it is very hard. Therefore, when someone (almost always a non-native speaker) is translating a poem into English rhyme, the English meaning has to be twisted, often out of all recognition. The result is inevitably doggerel, very much on the lines of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” by “the world’s worst poet.”

To produce any other result, the translator would have to combine perfect translation into a non-native language (already questionable) with the ability to write beautiful rhyming poetry in English. To say the least, this is a rare skill among even literary native speakers. It’s no accident that Chinese poetry got no attention or respect in English until Arthur Waley published his beautiful, free-verse translations. To rhyme in English, a Chinese poem must be warped and deformed.

Also, of course, contemporary English-speaking poets rarely use rhyme. So on top of producing a bad translation and bad poetry, rhyme also makes a modern translation sound dustily old-fashioned.

There is little, if any, difference between “poetry” like 

For the stronger we our houses do build, 
The less chance we have of being killed. 
William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (1880)

and these examples from books published all too recently by Chinese-to-English translators.

If more distant views are what you desire
You simply climb up a storey higher.
(1990) –Xu Yuanchong

or to continue the tower theme

Rather than break faith, you declared you’d die.
Who knew I’d live alone in a tower high?
(1984) –Xu Yuanchong


Alas, poor 杜甫, I knew him well–before he was translated

As ever are hills and rills while the Kingdom crumbles,
When springtime comes over the Capital the grass scrambles….
For three months the beacon fires soar and burn the skies.
A family letter is worth ten thousand gold in price.
1981 –Wu Juntao

Not simply “ten thousand in gold”– it has to rhyme with skice!

The nation split, as e’er mounts and rivers remain.
In spring, the city is o’ergrown with grass and trees.
Current events have drawn forth my tears on flowers to rain;
And birds stir my parting pain to spoil my heart’s ease.
For full three months flames of war have kept on burning;
Home letters are as dear as ten thousand guineas.
Hard scratching has made my hoary hairs thinner turning.
No longer can they hold my hairpins as I please.
(2005!) –Wang Yushu. (Compare with fifty more translations of this famous poem by Du Fu, here)


Current affairs are entailing distress and fears.
The sight of flowers is enough to bring up my tears.
Xu Zhongjie

AKA the first time you have ever read “current affairs” and “entailing” in a “poem.”**

In times so hard, the flowers brim with tears indeed;
No kin in company, the hearts of birds do bleed.
Zhang Xueqing

“Indeed” is a sure sign of trying too hard for a rhyme.

Hating separation, I shake with fright,
even when I hear birds sing with all their might.
(2001) –Zhang Bingxing

“All their might” is another one.

Abed, I see a silver light,
I wonder if it’s frost aground.
Looking up, I find the moon bright,
Bowing, in homesickness I’m drowned.
(Xu Yuanzhong)

There’s no drowning in this poem. Come to think of it, there’s no ground, either. And the poet is not bowing, which is this:



The bluebottles buzzing in the air
settle on the fence o’er there.
(1994) –Wang Rongpei and Ren Xiuhua

“Bluebottles” and “o’er” in a single “poem”: wow.

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Advice from an English-language online arts journal, Empty Mirror

What a scene is in the north found!
A thousand li of the earth is ice-clad aground.
(1993) –Gu Zhengkun

The syntax here makes my head feel dizzy. Not even Victorian; it’s unique to this kind of non-native rhyming “translation.”

In the south red bean shrubs grow,
In spring abundant seeds they bear.
Gather them more, please, you know
They are the very symbol of love and care.
–Gu Zhengkun

Yes, gather them more! (<—This is not English)

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From Advice to the Poets (1760), by Aaron Hill

I have discovered that some prominent current Chinese translators of poetry believe that rhyming in English shows us benighted barbarians the beautiful sounds of Chinese poetry, which we would not grasp by simply reading the Chinese original and an English translation. This is apparently the reason they persist in this folly. Of course, this being China, no one tells them that they are writing doggerel. Instead they are referred to in Chinese comparative literature studies as authorities, and given credit for transferring the “musicality” or “phonological beauty” of Chinese into English! Um, with such lines as these:

Your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.

Oops! That was William McGonagall, the “world’s worst poet.” I meant to cite

They overturn the dish and tray,
dancing in a capering way


I sing and the Moon lingers to hear my song;
My shadow’s a mess while I dance along.

These rhymes are bad poetry. They don’t scan; the English is unnatural; and as translations, they’re neither useful nor literary.

These “scholars” of “translation”* are seriously misleading the young Chinese academics and translators who see them getting so much praise (by non-English-speakers) for their horrible English “poetry.” An entire generation thinks this is not only an acceptable way to translate classical Chinese poetry, but something to aspire to. Yet the only modern audience for this sort of translation is people who either don’t read or like poetry, or don’t speak English.

It would be foolish to be against rhymes in poetry. Any well-known country singer or rapper can rhyme in English better, more naturally, and more affectingly than these Chinese scholars.

I have been inspired to finish this essay with my own doggerel, which I made up just now.

If into English you do translate
a native speaker your text must rate.
If further rhyming then tempts your heart
you and translation as friends should part.


*Xu has even won a major translation award! The mind boggles. Of course, it could have been for his translations into Chinese. Let’s hope so. He also translates into French but I’ve been scared to look.

**I found another one.

Lady Murasaki, whose name we don’t know

Murasaki Shikibu writing at Ishiyama-dera. Suzuki Harunobu, 1767. Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Murasaki Shikibu writing at Ishiyama-dera.
Suzuki Harunobu, 1767
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Lady Murasaki, or Murasaki Shikibu, is one of the great writers of the world. Her Tale of Genji, written more than a thousand years ago, jumpstarted Japanese literature. (It also contains a Garlic Princess.) At the time, most writers in Japan were men or else court women. The men received elaborate training in classical Chinese and then wrote Japanese with Chinese characters. Japanese grammar is more different from Chinese than English grammar is, so this was neither easy nor conducive to graceful writing. The women, though, weren’t educated much and had to scribble their Japanese using the syllabary. The freedom this created led to Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon‘s Pillow Book, among others. Apparently the two women, who were ladies-in-waiting at the royal court at the same time, disliked each other. Murasaki writes, “Sei Shonagon… was dreadfully conceited. She thought herself so clever and littered her writings with Chinese characters; but if you examined them closely, they left a great deal to be desired.”

Lady Murasaki looking at the moon at Ishiyama-dera. By Yoshitoshi (1889)

Lady Murasaki looking at the moon at Ishiyama-dera. By Yoshitoshi (1889)

But Murasaki goes on, “Thus do I criticize others from various angles–but here is one who has survived this far without having achieved anything of note….Whenever my loneliness threatens to overwhelm me, I take out one or two of them [her Chinese books] to look at; but my women gather together behind my back….What kind of lady is it who reads Chinese books?’ they whisper….So I hesitate to do even those things I should be able to do quite freely, only too aware of my own servants’ prying eyes. How much more so at court….So all they see of me is a façade.”

But even though we know a lot about Lady Murasaki’s inner feelings from her diary and Genji, we don’t know her name! Her family name was Fujiwara but herimg-131 real name was not recorded. Sei Shonagon is also just a court name. A woman of an earlier generation who also left a diary is known only as Michitsuna’s mother.

The Japanese were not the only people to suppress the names of women.In ancient Rome, women were often known only by the name of their family and then their order in the family. In China, many famous women in history are known only as Mencius’ mother, Consort Ban [her surname], or the Zhangsun Empress [a posthumous title]. Even today, girls’ names are not entered into the family books kept by Chinese families for generations. And even today in the Arab world, women are commonly called only “Umm Ali” or “Umm Salim”– mother of Ali or Salim, the name of their oldest son. Even if he’s the youngest of six children.

Angel mothers of fiction

Cedric says goodbye to his poor mother, who nobly gives him up so that he can have the advantage of being brought up as a Lord by his grandfather

Cedric says goodbye to his mother, who nobly gives him up so that he can have the advantage of being brought up as a Lord by his grandfather, the Earl. 

As a child, I didn’t get along well with my mother, who was overwhelmed with caring for lots of children, including one with special needs, mostly alone. I used to take refuge with book mothers, who always seemed angelic. Little Lord Fauntleroy (who by the way is an American! Did you know that?) calls his mother Dearest, which is enough to make most modern children gag; however, it appealed to Victorian mothers so much that quite a few actually dressed their boys like this:


A child in the 1888 theatrical version of Little Lord Fauntleroy

Most of those Victorian angel mothers, I now know, had servants. They never had to wash dishes, go to the grocery store, change diapers or stand over a hot stove. Much easier for your child to adore you when it sees you in the drawing room for an hour or two a day!


Why I didn’t major in English

Oh, please

Oh, please

Since I work with words and have loved the English language all my life, you might think I should have studied English at university. My very first English class in my first year disabused me of that idea. The professor’s doctoral thesis had been on stage metaphor in the poetry of John Donne. I had been reading John Donne for years for simple pleasure, but no longer! I lost heart and went on to study Chinese instead. I have never regretted it.

A couple of years ago, in a spurt of ambition, I joined the Modern Language Association (this is not why! honest!), and now get the PMLA in the mail, in spite of my father’s career, which served as a warning that professors of English spend most of their time writing things no one will ever read again. (A much more useful and interesting publication is the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is full of professorial gossip and news from the front, such as the recent resignation of a professor in Galveston, Texas after he gave failing grades to his entire MBA class for insolence and incompetence).

Today, the PMLA arrived and I was immediately reminded of why I didn’t major in English in college.

They use a text’s phonographic hardware to entrain literature into a Kittlerian discourse network– to connect “abstract meanings to real, tangible bodies, and bodies to regimes of power, information channels, and institutions.” (Suárez 748; see also Rice; Sterne).


This imaginary device would at once fulfill and explode the dream of competence; it would typologize, in all languages, the yeses of the text while also working against typology by understanding how yes eludes metalanguage; and it would trace the interplay of the two yes laughters without presuming to separate them through their reductive binarisms….

Ow! That hurt! As Whitman wrote after listening to another set of academics long ago,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


How much more compelling to read the real thing instead! A ballad from the fourteenth century:

An hendy hap ichabbe y-hent,
Ichot from hevene it is me sent,
From alle wymmen my love is lent
Ant lyht on Alisoun.*

or the lament of a great Chinese poet who had the misfortune to live through the second-deadliest war in world history:

Nations are smashed,
mountains and rivers remain.
A deeply felt time– tears splash on the flowers.
The ache of leaving–birds startle my heart.
The beacons have been lit for three months running.
A letter from home is worth ten thousand in gold….

*A wonderful thing has happened to me,/I think it is sent from heaven./From all other women my love has been taken/and alit on Alison.

How real is that story? Holes, by Sachar


The camp in the story is set at the edge of a huge dry lake in Texas

I don’t know about you, but I often pick up a book someone has recommended, read a few paragraphs, and then put it down again forever. Holes, by Louis Sachar, was one of those books for me. Yes, it was supposed to be good, but when I opened it, I found a story about a fat boy named Stanley at a camp for delinquents in Texas. None of those things appealed to me and, having spent several years of my youth in an unpleasantly hot place, I was not anxious to relive that.

Over the years since Holes first came out, though, so many people told me it was a classic that I had to give it another chance. And of course I was hooked! It’s a wonderful story about friendship and loyalty and redemption, and very satisfyingly plotted as well.


“Zero” and “Caveman” are the heroes of the story

The dangerous “yellow-spotted lizards,” which can kill you with one bite of their black teeth, feature heavily in the story. In my copy-editor mode, I went looking to see if they were real. Sure enough, I discovered a Wikipedia article about Lepidophyma flavimaculatum, the yellow-spotted tropical night lizard that ranges “from central Mexico to Texas” and does, in fact, have black teeth and a white tongue, just as Holes describes it. (There were lots of other Holes fans looking for the same information.) However, although its bite is “painful,” it wouldn’t kill you.


The real yellow-spotted lizard of Texas

After reading a story I like, I often find myself going to the internet to find out more– do you?

The story behind the story: Kipling’s Kim, part II

Since I am writing a book about a boy spy in Asia (although in ancient China, not British colonial India), I was rereading KimThe book is full of the life of India in the 1800s, in all its diversity and vigor. I love learning how Kipling was inspired by real people, places and events in his story.


One of the most intriguing characters in the book is the mysterious Lurgan Sahib, who runs a jewelry store in Simla, in the Himalaya. Today, Simla is a sleepy little town, but when the British ran India, the colonial administration would move there for the hot months, and for more than half the year, Simla was effectively the capital of India.

Lurgan Sahib teaches Kim how to observe. He was based on the real, fascinating “Alexander Jacob,” whom Kipling seems to have met. Peter Hopkirk, in Quest for Kim, writes: “Claiming to be a Turk, he was believed by some to be of Armenian or Polish Jewish parentage, though born in Turkey. ‘He was of the humblest origin,’ the obituarist continues, ‘and when ten years old was sold as a slave to a rich pasha, who, discovering the boy’s uncommon abilities, made a student of him.'” He became free on the death of his master, made a pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, worked his way from the Arabian peninsula to Bombay, and ended up as a gem-dealer in Simla. Many people who knew him apparently believed he had supernatural powers, and this is hinted at in Kim. Peter Hopkirk, too, writes that odd things happened to him while he was trying to find out more about Jacobs. Among other misfortunes, he lost all of his notes for his book. “Although I cannot say I seriously believe in messages or warnings from beyond the grave, this was not the only thing that happened while I was searching for Jacob’s will…Perhaps it was now time to lay off Jacob before something far worse befell me!”



At about age sixteen, Kim is reunited with the old Tibetan lama who has paid for his expensive boarding school.

Kim and the lama. These illustrations were by Kipling's father, who knew the original model for the lama

Kim and the lama. These illustrations were by Kipling’s father, who knew the real man who was the model for Teshoo Lama. The swastika symbolizes the endless cycle of birth and death that Buddhists and Hindus hope to escape.

 Kim and his lama make their way to the Himalayan foothills; the lama “drew a deep double-lungful of the diamond air, and walked as only a hillman can. Kim, plains-bred… sweated and panted astonished. ‘This is my country,’ said the lama.” One day in the hills, they meet Hurree Babu, one of Creighton Sahib’s top spies, who is pretending to be a “courteous Dacca physician” but is actually in the hills looking for two men who have come from Russia.


Hurree Babu, the “cowardly” Bengali master spy

During the 1800s, the Russians continually advanced their frontiers, and the British in India definitely felt the threat. This is “the Great Game” in Kim. In reality, the Russians came thousands of miles closer to India during that century; but in the book, they are warded off by the network of spies set up by Creighton Sahib. Hurree Babu and Kim and the unwitting lama cause the Russian and French officer to lose all their maps and other possessions and feel lucky they are still alive. The lama and Kim take refuge with “the woman of Shamlegh,” Lispeth, the polyandrous mistress of a remote community on the edge of a 2000-foot cliff. Kipling wrote an entire story about her; it’s sad.

The woman of Shamlegh

The woman of Shamlegh

At the end of the story, the lama and Kim, having thwarted the Russians’ plot, return to the Indian lowlands and the lama happens across a farm stream he is sure was the Buddha’s.

“Certain is our deliverance! Come!” He crossed his hands on his lap and smiled, as a man may who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved.