Monthly Archives: September 2017

Hitz Egin Euskara

Basque girl

Let her speak

(A, А) In Tampa, Florida, in the section of town called Ybor City, there is a newspaper named La Gaceta. In the most recent issue of the paper is an article that says, “One of the Ybor City tour companies tells us it is still getting calls from people who are canceling their travel to Tampa because of the hurricane.” I am not one of those people, and I’m in Tampa now as I write this.

(B, Б) In the newspaper La Gaceta, above the title, a line reads “English ● Español ● Italiano”. Ybor City was once home to 300 cigar companies (I find that hard to believe, but that’s what they say in the history museum). In the past, Ybor City had a heavy influx of immigrants from Spain, Cuba, and Italy, and many of those immigrants sat at desks rolling cigars by hand.

(C, В) These immigrants continued to use their native languages, as every human being obviously would. The language we learn from our parents with no effort, if we speak it long enough, is the language, our native tongue, one that we not only communicate with, but one that helps to create our sense of ourself as a human being.

(D, Г) Reflecting the history of the people who came to Ybor City, La Gaceta has articles in all three languages (very little Italian, but it’s there). This newspaper is a good representation of the phenomenon of people wanting to hold onto their language for cultural reasons.

(E, Д) Last week I read an article on the BBC website about the Basque language, which is not known to be related to any other language on earth. Basque is spoken in northern Spain and a little bit in southern France. As with so many small languages (such as Irish), Basque is used much more in the small villages and towns away from the big cities.

(F, Е) Like all people, the Basques wanted to use their language, first, because their mama spoke it, and who needs more of a reason than that? Secondly, the language preserved their cultural identity as a people. During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, however, it was illegal to speak Basque, and they were required to speak only Spanish. In the cities, in particular, people were afraid to speak their own language because someone might turn them in to the police. Can you imagine being arrested because of the language you speak? Surely only grim, dark barbarians would do that.

(G, Ё) Trying to destroy the language people speak is an attempt to destroy the culture of that group, so that they cease to exist separately. It is not genocide as literal killing, but it is cultural genocide. Here in the United States, I used to know a woman from Alaska, a member of a native tribe who said that in the American school she attended as a girl, they were forced to use English and were punished for speaking their home language. Can you imagine being punished for the language you speak? Surely only grim, dark barbarians would do that.

(H, Ж) Trying to destroy the cultural identity of a group by taking away their language is not rare. Dictatorships understand the power of language, and they not only censor it, but they standardize and control it. Control is obviously important to a dictatorship, but in addition, another language creates a sense of foreignness. Fear and hatred of foreignness must be basic human nature, as it exists all over the earth. There are many people right now in the United States who hate the idea of any language other than English in this country. Some of them, I am so sorry to say, are in my family.

(I, З) How would you feel to have your language taken away?

(J, И) I can say from a lot of personal experience that struggling to learn a foreign language makes you feel like a child, and you assume that you must sound actually stupid to other people. At the beginning of every paragraph for this blog post I’ve listed the first letters of both the English and Russian alphabets. What if suddenly all those English letters were illegal and you could only use the Russian letters? Would you hate the people who did that to you?

(K, Й) The title for this post, Hitz Egin Euskara, means “Speak Basque” in the Basque language.

Leave a comment

Filed under Language

Don’t Just Me

man with tape on mouth

An improved programmer

In the last few days I’ve been eyeing one of my peeves. I try not to make pets of them, knowing how they can mess up the furniture. My non-pet peeve is a linguistic issue, which of course it would be, given my hyperattentive language-nerd mania.

We’ve been updating our technology at work, maybe a good thing, I guess. I mean the old stuff was working perfectly for me, and in terms of what I have to do, it’s difficult to think of any possible way the new computer could improve what I do, but at least the disruption to my work has been considerable. So there’s that. And of course any change of computers is likely to come with new software, because . . . who knows why the fuck software changes every seventeen minutes. At the sound of the dire phrase “new version of a Microsoft program” the very dead in their graves begin to weep.

Anyhow, that’s not what I was going to say, and I am getting around to the language thing. I’m just coming in the back door. At work we’re also getting new copier/printers, also vastly updated, and based on the training session I attended this week, these copiers are only a few years away from being able to colonize Mars by themselves. They can also staple, fax, scan, squinch the edges of the paper together (I’m not kidding, because maybe there’s one person on earth who would want that), call your cellphone to send you Mongolian emojis, and slice tomatoes thin enough to read through.

So like I said, we had training, and since none of us already knew how to fly the Space Shuttle, some of it went over our heads. In going through the eye-glazing instruction on how to change which email to send a scanned document to, or whatever it was, at one point the woman doing the training began a sentence with the phrase, “You just . . . ”

Now wait. You know what “just” means when it’s used like this? It means something like “simply”, already wildly out of place in a technical discussion, but for me “just” has a deeper connotation. It implies that a thing is SO simple it hardly bears mentioning, yet since you insist on mentioning it, you just press this button.

Back when I was raising a teenager, I became sensitized to this word “just”, and maybe that’s why I notice it now. Back then, it was used to mean something like “The thing you are asking me, Stupid Adult Unit, clearly does not require this interrogation, but since you’re asking, I’m just going to be out until midnight.”

Within the last few years I’ve encountered another example of someone telling me how to use sophisticated technology, in that case a cell phone, by telling me how you “just use this pull-down screen” or “just swipe over”. He may as well have looked up and said, “And what about you, simple drone with blank eyes, are you sure you can handle these childishly easy things that I shouldn’t even have to explain to you?”

In regards to technology, the complexity of complex material is not diminished by using language that pretends it is simple. The ideal situation would be for people who are familiar with the technology to learn how to actually communicate and then explain it. But what are the chances of that? Seriously, people, what are the chances of that?

Years ago when I was teaching various forms of business or technical writing, I would collect examples of writing that was badly done to show my classes. Some samples were almost too easy to find, like insurance letters, but another reliable source of gob-smacking communication incompetence came from people who were involved with modern technology. I finally decided that rather than teach computer programmers how to write, it would be easier to pass a law making it illegal for them to write at all. And maybe they shouldn’t speak, either.

We should just do that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Language

Books About Philosophical Dogs Who Solve Crimes

dog smoking pipeWith Hurricane Irma getting close (still several hundred miles away), with rain falling and trees outside my window whipping back and forth all day Monday, the office where I work was closed for two days. Having so much extra time, I decided to spend some of it doing something I need to do, but don’t normally want to, investigating literary agency websites.

The three people who I talked to at the last conference, who agreed to look at samples of the novel The Invention of Colors, have all said no. Therefore, the next step for me is to follow the common route of sending a query letter to agents. I have a list of agencies or agents that I made up a few years ago, so now I’m going through that list and sending out letters.

These days, such contacts can mostly be done by email. The old way, still used in some cases, was to print and mail the letters, and, if you knew what you were doing, to absolutely be sure to include a stamped self-addressed envelop if you wanted to hear back. While the current process is still tedious and numbing, it is also a hundred times easier than it was, as well as cheaper.

I realized years ago that it’s utterly foolish to spend time contacting agents without checking to verify exactly what they want, whether they are even still in business, who works where, and how to submit. I found one agency, for instance, where every agent appeared to be focused on science fiction and fantsy, or agencies that appear to work only with black writers or with Christian writers. There are also agents who only handle romances or cookbooks or children’s books, etc. Now I could send these people a query letter, because who knows, maybe they changed their mind, but I don’t fit any of those categories, so I won’t bother them or waste my own time and energy.

It’s also important to send the agency exactly what they want, and some of them will even tell you they won’t read what you send if you don’t do it exactly like they say. There is always a query letter, sometimes a synopsis, sometimes an implication that these are the same thing, sometimes including a sample of your book (which they specify as five pages…or one chapter…or three chapters…or ten pages…or twenty-five pages..or fifty pages)—or don’t send anything except a query letter.

There are even a few agencies that don’t tell you anything except “Here’s the website to contact us” so you have to guess what to send and hope it’s OK. If you go looking on the internet for advice on writing query letters, or buy books on the subject, you will drown in that whirlpool of advice, and it doesn’t all whirl in the same direction.

My query letter for this book has been crafted over and over, with the advice of friends as well as feedback from several agents, including some from the last conference who I actually paid for a query letter critique. Thus I’ll be goddamned if I’m working on it any more. I’ll send it, and if it doesn’t work, so be it. They all hate me anyway, so what difference does it make?

In my investigations this week, I did come across one unusual thing, when an agency said to be sure to tell them what degrees you have. I wondered what the purpose of that could be, then I thought that if you’re writing a book on military history, for instance, or the benefits of a certain kind of diet, what you studied and got a degree in might be relevant—until I saw that they were asking to know the writer’s degrees only with fiction submissions, where such information is utterly irrelevant. I wonder how many college degrees Charles Dickens had? I bet he didn’t have any, that ignorant bastard.

As you know so well if you do it, writing is extremely difficult. I mentioned to someone this week that I was going to go home and do some writing work, and she said, “But it’s not really work for you, is it?” Oh, yeah, baby, it’s work. But as hard as writing is, it is a labor of creativity that I want to do.

Searching for a literary agent, on the other hand, while necessary, is an utterly horrible activity in every way. After I’ve done it for an hour or so, not only do I want to drink heavily (which I do), but I want to get in bed, curl up in a fetal position, and go to sleep.

I don’t even write books about dogs, much less dogs that solve crimes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Secret Agent

Still Waiting

birthday cake candlesThere are moments when I live in the future.

I went last Sunday to a birthday party with quite a crowd, including people from the United States, Europe, and China (perhaps other places as well). In our birthday crowd were white and black and Asian, young and old, men and women, and gay and straight. We talked and moved from one little group to another all evening, happy with a table full of food and birthday cake and a watermelon carved into decorative shapes.

This cheerful mix of people is where our country is headed. I know, at the moment, this peaceful interaction of human beings is not where we appear to be going. We are witnessing a remarkable viper’s head of ugliness and intolerance, manifested in the election of Donald Trump. As bad as the situation looks at the moment, that election (to oversimplify somewhat) was part of the last gasp of angry old white people. They have honest grievances, but they are also deeply wrong in some of the expression of those grievances. Nevertheless, the world I experienced at the birthday party is our future.

It is not enough, however, to sit and wait for the future. Harriett Beecher Stowe did not wait for slavery to go away of its own accord, as entrenched and inevitable as slavery seemed in her world. Simone de Beauvoir did not wait for men to gradually realize that women are human beings, as brutish and dim as society was then in recognizing the humanity of women. As a writer, it is my intention to reach toward the future, to help imagine that world where black and white and gay and straight no longer exist as social ideas, a world where we become able to see each other as fellow human beings.

Walking toward the future can be exhausting and demoralizing some days. I don’t deny that. At times I feel the way the Renaissance writer Erasmus might have felt sitting at his desk contemplating whether human beings have free will, then looking out his window and seeing a howling mob passing in the street carrying torches. The most recent howling mob with torches was in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob who our own astonishing president showed sympathy toward.

What can I do? I’m not a politician to write laws or make deals, I’m not a sociologist to analyze social ills, I’m not a spiritual leader to promote higher ideals. I will use what I have, and when everything else I have is gone away, I’m a writer. The day I die, the world will still be filled with injustice and oppression, and then it will be for people in those days to fight it. Right now it’s my turn, and while I’m here, I will fight for a just and decent world with what I have, as a writer.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of their race or culture or religion is too many.

One person abused anywhere on this planet because of sex or sexual orientation is too many.

One person shamed and limited anywhere on this planet by social rules is too many.

Creating a bright world of people who respect and love one another is difficult, and when I read the news, it sounds impossible. And there is little I can do. I’m only a writer, and I am unknown. But I will go on, because I have lived briefly in the future, and we will like it when we get there.


Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

Book, Kitap, Libro, Книга, Buch, Książka, Kitabu

Cuneiform tablet

An early book

I saw a newspaper article a few days ago commenting on the irony of the fact that book festivals are so crowded and popular—we have the Decatur Book Festival going on here this weekend—while books themselves seem to be disappearing. I was also thinking this week that whatever you call a book (the list above includes the word “book” in Turkish, Spanish, Russian, German, Polish, and Swahili), there are two basic ways to understand what the word means.


Up until now, the most common way to think of the book is as an object. Throughout history, and around the world, since the invention of writing, books have had dramatically different forms. The first books, if that word can even be used, may have been composed of separate small pieces of clay, not physically connected to one another. This was cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). At any rate, what was probably the first long piece of literature (“Gilgamesh”) was found on multiple clay tablets.

Some later forms of the book, depending on when and where you were, could have been:

  • sheets of papyrus (made from flattened reeds) glued together and rolled up into scrolls (Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans)
  • pieces of bamboo tied together in sets of “pages” and stacked together like an accordion (China)
  • sheets of paper made from agave plants, folded up between wooden covers (Mayan)

Sometime in the first century, the Romans invented a new format. Instead of gluing pages together end to end as a scroll, they stacked the pages on top of one another and then sewed them along one edge, with an added cover for protection. This form is called the “codex”, and it has lasted for 2,000 years, as we still use it.

There are various reasons why the codex book has been so successful. Part of that success is due to the invention of paper—light, cheap, flexible, and light-colored to easily show the ink. With the invention of printing in the west around 1450, Europeans were stunned and gaga at this fabulous new technology (the way we’ve been with the internet), and within only 50 years, millions of books had been printed in 18 languages. Think about that. Millions of books printed by the year 1500.

The codex has also been a success as a book form because it has become cheap, it’s very portable, it allows for fast access to any part of the book, and the paper with margins allows the reader to add notes. The paper book has been such an overwhelming success that when we use the word “book” we probably mean the object itself. It is lying there on the shelf, reminding us that sooner or later we are going to pick it up and read it.


I said there are two ways to understand the word “book”. I’ve been discussing one of those ways above, the book as an object. The other way to conceive of a book is as an idea.

In the last 100 years our technology based on electricity has begun to shift us in the direction of the book as an idea. Perhaps someday part of this process will be seen in the fact that some books are turned into movies. An author may like having their book made into a movie, but that’s not the book. It’s something else, using the idea of the book. More pertinently, of course, we have recently created two basic forms of the “book”—ebooks and audiobooks—that retain the original words, but the book as a physical object no longer exists. This development in particular leads us to an understanding of the word “book” as an idea.

ereader tablet

A later book

But hasn’t this always been somewhat true? To be more exact, a book is a collection of ideas, presented using symbols of language and visual images (and now, adding audio, video, and hyperlinks). No matter how strong our fondness for the physical paper object, many books are actually better in ebook format, where the ideas can be accessed more easily and far more efficiently, such as all reference books. For such books, the paper is not the point; the ideas are.

I believe paper books will always exist, for a variety of reasons, but the vast majority of books will not be physical objects. We will continue to use the word “book” but the word will come to have a very different meaning. (Eventually there will be a separate word for a book made of paper.) When the word “book” truly refers only to an idea, available in digital format, what will a “book” become? Will people in the future look back at people like me, who have mourned the supposed passing of our cumbersome bundles of paper, and say, “If only you could see what amazing things the book has turned into”?

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Talks