Thursday, December 19, 2013

What I Learned From Publishing My First Novel

Readers are your best friends 

Yes, they are. Think about it, you are an unknown writer. It takes either, love, a keen interest in the author, a commitment to helping other authors, openness, or else, a genuine attraction to a book's premise and setting, to dare read a novel from an unknown writer.

In the last eighteen months, I have been blessed with friends, some strangers, who have supported me in, this, the beginning of a long journey, by simply daring to pick up my novel and enter an unknown world.

The number one factor in influencing book purchases is what psychologists call normative influence: a recommendation by a friend. This is why, having someone read your novel and enjoy it, can be a catalyst for a chain reaction of events that defeats any form of marketing. Its value is priceless. Without the support of a massive marketing campaign to increase the author's visibility, or impress value in a potential audience's mind, the only real promotion a new author has left is the reader.

So thank you to my readers. You rock!

Your cover needs to attract the right audience

Would be readers who discover they chose the wrong book based on personal taste can be your worse enemy. I have received reviews that made me wonder, "well, what did you expect?" and again, some have made me think, "isn't it obvious that it would be THAT kind of book?"

Well no. Perhaps it was not that obvious.

As a self-published author, I take on the responsibility to properly promote the book so as to target the right audience.

How do you ensure you are attracting the correct audience?

The Ming Storytellers has an undoubtedly beautiful cover. Last November, it won a eBook cover design award and designer, Caryn Gillespie, will soon produce the cover for my second novel.
According to studies, aside from a friend recommendation, the cover is one of the most important factors in luring a reader to purchase a book.

So what went wrong?

I think the nature of The Ming Storytellers, with its multiple character points of view, its multiple narrative threads and its balanced set of male and female characters, would definitely seem 'boring' or 'too long' or 'confusing' for those readers who were inticed by the splendid Chinese female on the cover, and who imagined the novel to be set exclusively in the feminine sphere with a single point of view.

It could be argued- and I am doing so intuitively without any quantitative evidence- that the plurality of The Ming Storytellers may have been more strongly conveyed if the focus of the cover had not been on just one character. Truer still,  the 'epic' nature of the novel (to repeat the term used by many readers) would have been emphasized if the cover emulated the imagery in traditional epic novel covers...which ultimately are sort of boring anyway. Or less sexy!

I would not change this cover for the world. But I think in this case, the blurb of the book may require rethinking. It might be rewritten to better convey the important facets of this novel to a reader who may otherwise be misled by the imagery.  

Giving away your book for free is not always a good idea

I think giving away your book for free has advantages, the main one being to increase an author's visibility over a couple of weeks. However the volume of downloads does not convert as expected.

Sure, you'll generate thousands of downloads in a few days, but how many of those ebook hoarders are genuinely interested in reading a 600-page novel set in the Ming Dynasty? With eunuch male characters? And with foreign names? Very few.

They will like the cover (and who doesn't), add it to their shelves, increment the number of books in their social reading platform and, ta da - end of story.  I've had a sinking feeling whenever I have seen my book tagged in Goodreads as "freebie" or "free ebook". It likens my 'omnibus' (as described by a wonderful reader from India) to the worse junk that exists in the digital self-publishing world.

At worse, the impulsive hoarder's tastes will turn out to be horribly mismatched to your book.
And they will leave a review.
Just because they can.

And let's not mention the trolls - individuals who have produced nothing literary in their entire lives and whose sole sense of worth is derived from destroying an author's reputation by happily downgrading the said author's book ratings - at No cost! Do not indulge them.

Trolls exist. I thought they did not, but they do. I was naive.

Negative reviewers are poor psychologists

In life, you can choose to be happy and you will be... Or, you can choose to be miserable and that too, will be your lot. Your preconceived attitude will cloud your perceptions of others, your interpretations of events and, if that is not enough, will horribly skew your sense of measures.

There are negative reviews that are genuine just as there are those that reveal deep seated issues in the reviewer. What remains perplexing about the latter is how they can feel so comfortable making certain judgments in public when the attitude behind their words is so evident. I worry sometimes.

Nevertheless, considering the democratic nature of digital publishing's rating system, an author will always have to deal with the masses. And one does not need to be a psychologist or a historical novelist, to understand that the masses, often, are led by idiots.

If you publish to US audiences, don't be a freaking snob, use US English

I made the mistake of using UK English for a full year, only to have a couple of reviewers rant about the spelling mistakes that were rampant. (This was simply not true.) Considering that the US is my primary market at the moment, I should have known better.

Living in Australia, where both spelling forms are known (or more or less known and accepted), I could not imagine how intolerant the majority of US readers are. The more educated would not complain but that is not the case for the majority.

In the end, I resolved the 'rampant spelling' problem. To be fair, I did identify 10 spelling errors that were genuine, but in a book of 600+ pages, I felt that the judgment made upon The Ming Storytellers as being 'obviously self-published' was grossly disproportional. My fellow indie authors will agree.

Again, reviewers are not the best psychologists. And they are not good at maths.

Your Best Reviewers are people who understand what you were setting out to do.

To me, this encapsulates what I seek in reader feedback. To be understood. Not on the surface, not at the narrative level, but deeply and completely. When a reader has understood my meaning - not my words, but my intentions - I feel at home.

It gives such joy to strike a chord with a reader. It's like tapping into this collective essence that is humanity. When a reader shares their reaction and I deem it the 'correct' one based on what I sought out to do, there is this symbiosis, as though both our mirror neurons were activated in tandem.

Crazy analogy...
You must forgive the social psychologist in me. The writer in me would just say "fuck yeah".

For those moments, I am grateful.

I made mistakes

I take objective feedback seriously.

Some of this feedback related to editing of The Ming Storytellers which might be slightly improved.
Yet further feedback related to the multiple voices within the narrative which jarred certain readers or rendered the novel more difficult to read for some. Then again, there were readers who enjoyed the novel's complexity and saw it as a challenge and a reward to complete.

All this, I take seriously.

According to the more objective feedback, The Ming Storytellers could have been slightly better edited...even though I spent a total of 6 years on it. It was not an easy task. Sure, I could do it again - revise flow and complexity in certain passages, strip a couple of sentences, use alternative words... But I shall keep that lesson for the second novel which I can promise, as a self-improving author, will be of higher standard from an editing perspective. It will also be shorter.

As for plurality of voices- well, judging from George R.R. Martin's success, and his books' multiple points of view, I may not want to change my approach. I believe there are readers who enjoy multiple voices. I know I do. In fact that is what I most enjoyed in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Perhaps I might best apply this feedback to attracting suitable audiences by injecting more thought into my future covers.

Self-doubt is here to stay

No matter how pompous or joyful my Tweets, no matter if I rave about a five-star review, no matter the thought that I'm now published, still, the self-doubt is there to stay.

My partner, who has been a writer for over twenty years, and is a respected screenwriter in Australia and abroad, has many a times advised me that self-doubt is the lot of writers. But not just all writers: those who care about growing and those who are not complacent about their art.

Based on this, I am grateful for self-doubt and the motivation that it imparts to me. I also know, through the enormous talent I see whenever I pick up a book by my favorite authors- some of who are my friends-, that I still have much to learn.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Win The Ming Storytellers for Christmas

Adrift from the Ming Dynasty to delve instead on Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Venice for my upcoming novel, The Mascherari. The jump between cultures is always fascinating. In contemplating two different worlds, one can't help but compare and contrast. 

Here is a short multiple choice quiz for anyone wishing to win a FREE paperback copy of The Ming Storytellers. I will be giving away two copies in January 2014!

Simply leave a comment with your answers to each question. (You can also comment on the Facebook post here). Each question is worth a point unless advised. Answers will be posted the day before Christmas. Winners will be notified before NYE.
Good luck!

Question 1:
In the 16th century, which drink, referred to by many as "that Muslim drink" came to Venice by way of Constantinople?
a. Pu'erh tea
b. Oolong tea
c. Chai
d. Coffee
e. Rose water

Question 2:
The Council of Ten, Venice's security council, was among the first European government body to veer away from vellum and make use of paper. But paper, as we know it, originated from China. Which other places fabricated paper before it found its use in Venice? This question is worth two points.
a. Samarkand, Paris
b. Samarkand, Germany
c. Germany, England
d. Samarkand, Spain
e. Samarkand, England

Question 3:
The Ming Dynasty Chinese guarded their Astronomy knowledge jealously. Their knowledge, which was enriched by Arab astronomers, was thought to favor the Chinese fleet and its naval supremacy. But China is not the only country whose rulers have held tight to knowledge whenever it aided politics or economical gain. Which practice did Venetians hold secret?
a. Glass making
b. Mask making
c. Rowing a gondola

Question 4:
The Doge, Venice's figurehead and symbolic ruler had, in contrast with a Chinese emperor, very little power. But much like a Chinese emperor who was the only person permitted to wear the color yellow, gold clothing was the exclusive apparel of the Doge.
What was the other particularity of the Venetian Doge?
a. he was not usually permitted to leave the palace
b. he hired eunuchs to run the Pregado (the Senate)
c. he had concubines
d. he was only appointed for one year
e. he never sat in a gondola

Question 5:
Shoes! What is female culture without these exquisite creations? Ming Chinese women tell us that one had to suffer bound feet in tiny embroidered slippers. What was the peculiarity of female shoes in Renaissance Venice?
a. Women loved to wear slippers
b. Shoes were invariably made of glass
c. Women wore platform shoes
d. Women wore wooden clogs

Question 6:
Porcelain skin, shaved and drawn eyebrows, lips with a cherry pout, long black jets of hair curled into a bun - these are all hallmarks of Ming Dynasty beauties. Which of these is a definitive marker of beauty for a woman in Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Venice:
a. Olive Skin
b. Red hair
c. Shaved, receding forehead

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Une Orchidée dans mon Rêve

Il y a maintenant plus d’un mois, j’ai perdu un être cher. Un être qui était à la fois pour moi, une mère, une grand-mère, une amie et une inspiration.  Que de trésors cette personne a déversé dans ma vie. 

Quand je l’ai vu pour la dernière fois, elle était menue, se faisait petite, silencieuse, et mangeait peu. D’apparence faible, elle dormait beaucoup. De ses cheveux, presque rien ne restait. Elle ne se déplaçait plus, errant entre sa chambre et sa table au salon, où trônait son ordinateur – ce vénéré appareil qui l'a reliait à sa famille de toutes parts du monde, ses êtres chers de qui rien qu’un petit mot, pouvait ensoleiller sa vie.

Je savais bien qu’elle n’avait plus beaucoup de temps avec nous. 

Trois mois plus tard, telle une fragile orchidée, elle est partie. Ses cendres ont rejoint celles de mon grand-père une semaine après.

Les jours qui se sont écoulés depuis ont été étrangement vides. 

Hier, comme par miracle, j’ai rêvé d’elle. Elle semblait plus jeune. Elle marchait dans une ruelle ombragée, longeant des petites boutiques garnies de souvenirs et de brillantes pacotilles; elle dégageait le calme, la sérénité, et de son visage rayonnait l’un des plus beaux sourires que j’ai jamais vu.

Je la revoyais telle qu’elle était durant ma plus tendre jeunesse. Sa chevelure grise prise soigneusement dans une mise-en-plis, vêtue d’un pantalon et d’une large blouse blanche, rehaussée d’un vert océan. Une légère brise fraiche caressait son visage, un visage à la fois ébahi par ce qu’elle voyait autour d’elle, et lointain - comme si elle n’appartenait pas à ce monde. Elle me semblait si heureuse. J’étais émerveillée par ce que je lisais sur son visage.

Je me souviens qu’au début du rêve, j’étais moi-même en tenue de nuit et que je n’avais pas fait ma toilette du matin. C’est là que j’ai commis une erreur. J’avais d’abord voulu courir vers elle pour la serrer dans mes bras et lui tenir compagnie, faire avec elle ces magasins pour que nous découvrions de belles choses ensemble. Mais une honte m'a saisie et j’ai couru dans l’autre sens, persuadée qu’il fallait d’abord que je m’habille, que je me coiffe et que je me nettoie avant de la voir. C’est dans ce moment de vanité, née, je crois, d’une adolescence pendant laquelle je ressentais souvent la honte de moi-même, que j’ai fui sa présence.

Quand je suis rentrée chez moi, mon père m’attendait. Il m’a montré une boite de biscuits me disant que je trouverai surement quelque chose que j’aimerai la dedans. J’ai ouvert la boite pour découvrir ces délices sucrés. C’est alors que du coin de l’œil, j’ai vu venir ma grand-mère vers moi. C’était comme si elle avait toujours été là. Elle est apparue là ou je ne l’attendais pas. Elle avançait cette fois en tenue de nuit. Le rêve voulait qu’à présent ce fussent elle, et non moi, qui venait de se réveiller. Elle me regardait avec un petit sourire coquin, comme si elle voulait me dire que elle, elle n’avait rien à cacher, et que ce n’était pas la peine que je me cache ainsi. 

Penaude, je lui ai tendu un biscuit en lui demandant si elle en voulait. Elle n’a rien dit. Elle l’a pris en souriant.

Elle était si gaie. Je ne pouvais lire aucun soucis dans son visage. 
En y repensant maintenant, je crois que c’est bien cela qu’elle voulait me dire, ou plutôt me faire comprendre, au sujet de la vie.

Et soudain il a fallu que je me réveille, que ce rêve prenne fin, qu'elle disparaisse sans qu’elle me parle, sans qu’elle ne m’adresse la parole, sans que je puisse marcher à ses côtés, sans que je puisse parcourir les ruelles ombragées avec elle, sans que la brise nous caresse toutes les deux, liées dans un après-midi complice et magique.

C’était un réveil dur. Trop dur. Dur, d’avoir était si proche et de l’avoir perdu si soudainement alors que je croyais avoir le temps… Réveil qui m’a meurtri l’âme. Trop dur, la fin de ce rêve, alors que j’avais de nouveau de l’espoir en la revoyant; c’était comme si on me l’avait volée une seconde fois.

Ce matin j’ai versé tant de larmes en me souvenant de ce rêve. Je me suis retrouvée bouleversée, de nouveau enfant - portant le fardeau d’une immense tristesse. J’ai vécu la fin de mon rêve comme une injustice accablante. Je sais, je sais bien; c’est un rêve qui présage tant de bonnes choses. Mais sa perte me coute. 

Elle me coute tant.  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Historical Fiction Novels with Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Characters

Back in the 1990s, when I first read Alice's Walker's The Color Purple and later saw the highly moving film adaptation, I remember how it spoke to me emotionally on several levels. This African-American historical novel became my favorite for several years. I still love it. While the story contains several touching highlights, I remember that nothing was more significant for me than Celie and Shug's relationship. I completely identified with Celie and her adoration for the sultry blues singer. Celie's lack of self-esteem and her need for a hero, a female at that, one who could inspire and comfort her, all of it was immediately accessible. I don't think I found the same emotional depth in any other heterosexual romance on screen. To this day, this faithful portrayal of love between two women remains with me.

Before the turn of the century, I discovered other depictions of what we would today call GLBT relationships in fiction. The first that stood out were those portrayed by Anne Rice. I read them all, from The Vampire Lestat to The Vampire Armand. Anne Rice's vampires are immensely appealing. Their sexual conquests enviable. Lestat, Armand, even David Talbot who headed the Talamasca, all men with bisexual tendencies. Men with appetites. Exactly what one would expect from those who experience the supernatural realm on a daily basis.

I admired Anne Rice's characters but from a GLBT social perspective, they were not as groundbreaking. I think this is because supernatural characters, as per their definition, are more easily given liberties to enact out of the ordinary behaviors. Even readers who oppose certain behaviors in real life will wave these behaviors in a supernatural character. For me, the sexual orientation in Anne Rice's characters soon became relegated to the extraordinary and this was dangerous because it perpetuated the freakish aspect of GLBT sexualities. We see the same effect in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. A sexuality that led to the author's harsh imprisonment and his eventual death, is nevertheless permitted in his characterisation of the sinful Dorian because this one is, after all, an evil freak who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his youthful looks.

These depictions remain nevertheless highly entertaining and fascinating in their rich sensuality and in the taboo they explored at the time. 

I want to veer away from the freaks and the superhumans, no matter how attractive, and instead examine those ordinary GLBT characters. Characters who, because they do not feature explicitly in self-professed Gay and Lesbian literature and also because they are brought alive in recreated historical periods, serve to anchor GLBT relationships into social normalcy, both in the present and throughout history. 

I want to look at historical novels that accurately highlight behaviors that were always present in history, whether or not these were socially and culturally condoned at the time. These novels hint, provide glimpses or else matter-of-factly point to their historical characters' sexual orientation. They do not make a huge deal out if it, which would defeat the created 'sense of ordinariness'.

These books say something quite powerful about such relationships, "Love it or leave it, but you cannot change the past". The ordinariness and mere presence of GLBT sexuality within a historical setting, supported as it is by historical research, has the effect of rendering any modern "coming out" as absurd. That is not to say that modern GLBT expressions are not authentic, but rather, that they are late to the party, since their authenticity has already been grounded and verified for thousands of years throughout humanity's history. 

The historical setting of such books provides a comforting mirror image of the present, leaving one with the sentiment that humanity has well and truly "been there and done that". That is the true power of GLBT characters in works of historical fiction; its other power is to reverse years of social and cultural silencing which have normalised heterosexual relationships both in writing and in history.

A historical novelist who features a bisexual, gay or lesbian character is not playing with sensationalism; they also do more than reach out to a broader audience; perhaps they also fulfill their own desires and personal imaginings. But what is more significant, is that they are depicting the full gamut of human sexuality, and therefore, the full gamut of the human experience within history. And this is important, because one cannot purport to truly recreate a historical setting while shunning certain aspects of the human experience.

A few of these historical novels are listed here. If you can think of recent others, please let me know and I will add them. 

Bryn Hammond's Amgalant series:
13th century Gay Mongol character

Elisabeth Storr's The Wedding Shroud:
Bisexuality in the Etruscan world

Lisa J. Yarde's Sultana - Two Sisters:
Bisexuality in Moorish Spain 

Laura Rahme's The Ming Storytellers:
Sapphism and Transexuality in Ming China

John Caviglia's Arauco:
Homosexuality in native 16th Century Chile

Non-fiction readers may also be interested in, 
Anne Somerset's Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion
A biography of England's lesbian queen

Saturday, September 7, 2013

La Grande Paura - The Great Fear

Saint Sebastian - patron saint of homosexuals

It was while researching the subject of sexual crime for my upcoming novel, The Mascherari, that I came across a period of repression that swept Late Medieval / Early Renaissance Italy.  This relatively unknown wave of persecutions and executions took place in 15th century Florence but also to a lesser extent in Venice. This phenomenon, which targeted men of homosexual disposition was known as la grande paura, The Great Fear.

To put this Great Fear in context, consider that during the period 1432 to 1502 in Florence, it has been estimated that as many as 17000 individuals were incriminated at least once for sodomy with 3000 convicted.  This is no small figure for a city with a then population of less than 50000.

The Great Fear took place at a time when Florence lay vulnerable following a number of repeated plague attacks. The Black Death of 1348 had swept away as many as 80000 Florentines in a population that was then 120000.  Serious plague outbreaks followed in 1363, 1364 and later in 1417, 1423/1424 and 1430.  In 1410, the population fell to its lowest, probably sparking fears about population numbers, and further consolidating any non-procreative sexual acts as threats to the city’s dwindling numbers.

But the rise in prosecutions can be attributed to more than just dwindling population numbers. In short, the Great Fear was fear of God's wrath.

Sodomy in Late Medieval Italy

In medieval parlance, sodomy was a broad term which for the Church, encompassed not only anal sex practices, but also masturbation, and any form of sexual activity – fellatio being an example – which did not lead to procreation.

In the 14th and 15th century, medieval Italy was no stranger to heterosexual anal sex. This practice was performed consciously between couples to avoid pregnancy.  For this reason, it was frowned upon by the Catholic Church for whom the sole purpose of sex was procreation.

But more vile in the eyes of the Catholic Church, was the sodomy inherent in homosexuality. This “abominable sin” was greatly feared because it posed the threat of inviting divine wrath.  While the term sodomy denounced any sexual acts that were deemed, then, as contra natura, or “contrary to nature”, it was usually the conspicuous act between two men which came to mind most of the time when people spoke the word.

Florence – the Great Sodom

The city of Florence was once considered as the modern Sodom. For much of the 14th and 15th century, Florentines more than their other Italian counterparts, had a reputation for engaging in what was then termed as the game in the behind. Venice, too, saw a rise in same-sex liaisons in the 15th century but this surge was thought to have sprung from Florence.

The Spread of the Great Fear

The rising intolerance towards homosexuals can almost be likened to the recent modern intolerance that took place in the late 1980s during which homosexuals were scapegoated for a raging and incurable disease which confounded physicians. Just as the spread of AIDs would focus the modern psyche on an “offending” subculture, so too did the scourge of bubonic plague experienced in the early 15th century bring about the scapegoating of homosexuals.

Bernardino di Siena

In the early 1420s, a particular religious preacher is notable for his spread of paranoia and his call to action against homosexuals. This man, Bernardino di Siena, preached at length in Siena and then later in Florence.

In short, Bernardino di Siena blamed sodomites for causing the plague. He believed that the plague was sent by God as punishment for the sins of sodomy. He also blamed population losses to sodomites’ apathy towards women, their reluctance to marry and their sterile sexual practices. “You don’t understand that this is the reason you have lost half your population over the last twenty-five years. Tuscany has the fewest people in any country in the world, solely on account of this vice,” he said.

In 1424, Bernardino di Siena launched a sermon in Florence during which he said, “For if they don’t marry they become sodomites. Make this a general rule: when you see a grown man in health who doesn’t have a wife, you can take this as an evil sign about him, especially if he hasn’t chosen for spiritual reasons to live in chastity.”  His remarks had a profound effect well into the later part of the century, in that most men of all ages who were later implicated in sodomy appear to have been unmarried.

While Bernardino can be applauded for denouncing such practices as the pimping of young boys by their fathers – often to procure themselves with privileges from the abducting party – or for warning parents about the potential dangers faced by their sons in a city where rape of boys was common, he nevertheless remains a disturbing figure for his stirring of hatred towards those men whose only crime was to favor other men.  In particular Bernardino painted sodomites as unstable, selfish and dangerous.  As explained earlier, he attributed anything that was unpredictable in the human experience – including the plague, wars and floods – to sodomy.

In his diatribes against what he called “feminised” men, he went as far as scolding mothers for dressing-up their sons to be too attractive.  He clearly suffered from an anxiety about gender distinctions. “They’re the beautiful color of hyacinth, these boys of yours become girls. Shame on you, fathers and mothers! [..] don’t send them out spruced up like maidens!” or even “Oh Silly, foolish woman, it appears you make your son look like yourself, so that to you he’s quite becoming: ‘Oh, isn’t he the handsome lad!’ and even ‘Isn’t he the pretty girl!’ “

His misogynistic beliefs also saw him advise mothers to lock up their sons indoors and only let out their daughters: he believed that even if their daughters were raped, it was “less evil” and therefore less offending to God then sodomy perpetrated on their sons.

Bernardino also accused Tuscans of being too lenient towards sodomites.  While in Florence, he praised examples of justice meted out to sodomites in other parts of Italy. He described how a man convicted of sodomy in Verona (then part of the Venice Republic) had been quartered and his limbs hung from the city gates; he noted that in both Genoa and Venice, sodomites were burnt.  In Venice, he taunted, they really applied justice.

In April 1424, as part of Lent, Bernardino gave a series of speeches against sodomy in which he called onto people to spit whenever they heard sodomy mentioned: “If they won’t change their ways otherwise, maybe they’ll change when they’re ridiculed. Spit hard!” On April 9, he roused the people by shouting, “To the fire! They are all sodomites! And you are in mortal sin if you try to help them!”

Prosecution prior to the Great Fear

While punishments against sodomy had previously existed in Florence, as Bernardino expounded, they were not as harsh as those in Venice.  The nature of the crime had long decided the conviction. For example, the rape of young boys or ‘giovanni’, was more severely punished than outright acts between two consenting male adults. The prosecution for a foreign man abusing local boys was even harsher.  Another consideration was whether the willing party was an ‘active’ or ‘passive’ partner, the ‘passive’ partner being usually fined. The amount of this fine rose with the boy’s age, reflecting a belief in the diminishing innocence of his act.  But for various social reason, it was often difficult to pursue certain individuals, and accusations did not often lead to punishment. To further cloud judicial matters, sodomy was well ingrained in every level of Florentine society including, no doubt, the higher levels of government.

Overall, prior to the 1430s, it appeared that sodomy did not attract much court attention.  According to Michael Rocke’s research of Florence judicial records dating from 1390 to 1410, only 33 persons were found convicted of cases involving sodomy, including 10 for attempting sodomy only. These cases dealt mostly on rape against young children. Very few individuals were condemned for consensual non-coercive relations. This was perhaps what Bernardino di Siena had termed as ‘lenient’.

The Signori di Notte’s Repression

In 1432, shortly after Bernardino’s inflamed sermons, the Florence regime finally appointed an institution, the Office of the Night, to “root out” sodomy.  This time, it was declared, there would be no lenience. The Office of the Night existed from 1432 to 1502 during which it administered a pervasive repression regime, targeting homosexuals.  In each year of the last four decades of the 15th century, an average of 400 people were implicated and 55 to 60 condemned for homosexual relations. Again this number is astounding considering the population at the time.

It was believed that the exercise of justice against sodomites would help appease God and prevent his wrath. Officials asserted that in such way, “the city and its upright citizens may be freed from all commotion, wars ended, plague abolished, enemy plots curbed” and so on.

The Officers of the Night operated through secret denunciations, calling onto the public to make accusations for which they did not require proof. As an incentive, accusers were offered financial rewards, calculated as a proportion of the convicted sodomite’s fine. Accusations were dropped in a box or tamburi affixed to churches in Florence and several nearby towns.  As would be expected, this system was not flawless. It was thought to lead to false accusations especially between enemies or between those still grieving old disputes.

The Night Officers also employed spies who ferreted out information and made their own accusations. Penalties ranged from various levels of fines to exile, interdiction from office, and at worst, execution.

Prosecutions in Venice

In Venice, the fear of sodomy was so great that the government body who took charge of prosecuting those suspected of homosexuality was no other than the same body of men entrusted with State security. This group of men, The Council of Ten, had enormous power which by 1430, equalled that of the Senate.

The so called Consiglio Dei Dieci were tasked with three main responsibilities: the peace and security of the Republic; the Venetian coinage; and the prevention of moral corruption, including sodomy.
In Venice, the punishment for sodomy was great, ranging from exile, maiming or burning.

As I found while researching for my novel, The Mascherari, the insidious powers of the Consiglio Dei Dieci often extended beyond the law and cannot be underestimated. The following case clearly exemplifies this idea.

In 1406 to 1407 a large group of homosexuals, including a number of young nobles and clergymen, were discovered by the Signori di Notte in Venice. Because the moral crime was serious and the penalty was burning, the Council of Ten stepped in.  However it was found that 16 or 17 Venetians from within the group were from the highest patrician families and so, the Council of Ten suppressed evidence and reduced the number of those executed to a minimum.

Still The Council of Ten made a concerted effort to “root out” the evil of sodomy.  For example, in 1455, it decreed that a certain number of places were to be placed under police surveillance since they were gathering places for sodomites. This included the porch of the Santa Maria Mater Domini church in the district of Santa Croce.

Again in 1460, the Council of Ten ordered physicians to send a report to the Council within 3 days after treating any man or woman whose anus had been damaged by sodomy…

But according to Rocke, the prosecutions seen in Florence far exceeded those in any other city on record, either in Italy or in Europe. In Venice for example, from 1426 to 1500, at a time roughly equivalent to the tenure of Florence’s Office of the Night, authorities prosecuted only 411 individuals and from 1406 to 1500, they convicted only 268.  In Genoa, only 5 persons were convicted from 1444 to 1500 while in Palermo, an estimated 100 men were executed for homosexual sodomy from 1567 to 1640.

Clearly the wave of repression experienced in Florence was unparalleled and remains a fascinating albeit disturbing subject of study.

Even more disturbing, at least for those who are more progressively minded, is that Bernardino di Siena, who actively preached against witchcraft and sodomy during the 15th century, is today a Catholic Saint.


A fantastic source of historical information for a subject that is given scant attention, Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships – Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence was a valuable read for both my novel writing research and beyond. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Myth of Medusa and Female-Assisted Patriarchy

Perseus and the Gorgon
by Laurent-Honore Marqueste (1903)

Our society is quick to denounce the horrifying decrees promulgated against Afghan women by the Taliban. We lament the unjust punishment of raped women in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. We cry in outrage when we hear of yet another victim of gang-rape in India. The beliefs and mechanisms that underpin the appalling treatment of women in many parts of the world are many and varied. They cannot be outlined here and that is not the purpose of this post.

This post is about patriarchy. Yet it is not your standard feminist post. Far from it. It is about denouncing the women who assist patriarchy.

How does a woman in India assist patriarchy? 
By privileging a boy's education. By telling her daughter through actions or words that she is worthless. By raising sons who feel entitled to better treatment than girls. By allowing a son to grow up believing that he is a little king, and that he deserves more than women, or worse, can do whatever he likes to a woman, including beating her to a pulp or savagely raping her with his male friends.

How does a woman in Africa assist patriarchy? 
By perpetuating the cruel practice of female circumcision. In parts of Africa, especially Somalia, the women are indoctrinated to believe that a daughter's worth for marriage and her chastity depends upon her being circumcised. It is the women who take an active, aggressive role in circumcising their daughters. It is women who tell their uncircumcised daughters or daughters-in-law that they are filthy and not fit to be a wife unless they have been brutally mutilated.

How does a woman in any part of the world, including the secular Western world, assist with patriarchy? 
By happily labeling another woman a 'slut' when it appears that this other woman naturally solicits male attention. It is often the case that such a label is born of envy or insecurity. Its true crime, is that it publicly invites the social scorn of their sister, while supporting the patriarchal belief that sexually desirable or sexually active women have no place in this world, and that only a man has rights over his pleasure and sexuality.

How does a woman in any work place or organisation assist patriarchy? 
By undermining her own female co-workers or potential female employees because she, without realising it, has long internalised social beliefs that certain skills are best acquired by the male gender. There is a doubt that exists within her about her own ability as a woman to master certain technical or other traditionally male-dominated skills, and it is this internal doubt that she projects upon her sisters such that she comes to undermine them even where they are perfectly capable.
How else?
By doing what many men do so well: that is, by assuming that her female co-workers could not have achieved what they have on merit; that if they have at all delivered, it must have come primarily through some male aid or worse, through the practice of some female guile to acquire the assistance of others while doing nothing herself.

These are all forms of female-assisted patriarchy and female-assisted sexist attitudes. They serve the outdated male beliefs that women are not as important, valuable, skilled and trustworthy as men. They reduce women to manipulative, unfit and beguiling monsters. They reduce women to the gorgon, Medusa.

Do you know the tale of Medusa?

Yes, you must remember the Greek tale of Medusa. She was this hideous female with snake-like streams for hair and one look upon her face was thought to petrify the onlooker such that he or she turned to stone. It was Perseus who, with the help of Athena, managed to kill Medusa.

But do you know the real tale of Medusa?

Before she became a gorgon, Medusa was a beautiful girl. Her beauty was such that even the goddess Athena envied it.

Athena soon found out something horrible. She discovered that the God Poseidon had raped Medusa. Being enamored of Poseidon herself, she saw it fit to punish Medusa. She turned her into a gorgon. Perhaps Athena thought that it was Medusa's fault if Poseidon had not been able to control his legendary urges and added Medusa to his long list of sexual conquests. But never mind that Poseidon was a serial rapist, Athena cast the entire blame on Medusa. In so doing, she no doubt appeased her fractured ego and took her revenge on a rival. And so it is when insecure women blame other women: they assist patriarchy.

Just like her Indian and Pakistani sisters who receive no justice for rape, Medusa was turned into a monster whose fate was to be reviled and avoided. Besides, it is impossible to engage a gorgon in conversation if one is soon cast to stone upon looking at her. Medusa was fated for social isolation. There is a word for that. Ostracism. Ostracism was her ultimate punishment. Even today, ostracism is a familiar mode of punishment for women who dare raise the ire of their jealous sisters. When the word is out against them, ostracised women are ignored, unfriended and perpetually removed from invitation lists.

Returning to our Greek legend... Our patriarchal hero, Perseus, had sworn to kill Medusa, this monster who inspired so much fear. And so it is when women are seen as nothing but monsters.

Not content with having turned Medusa into a gorgon, Athena also took it upon herself to assist Perseus in killing her.

There are many forms of female-assisted patriarchy but the one that really stood out for me was the story of Medusa. I always felt sorry for her and the unjust punishment meted out to her. When I look at the image in this post, the photo of Marqueste's sculpture, it represents for me all that is ugly and horrifying about the treatment of women at the hands of patriarchy.  I feel only pity for Medusa. Her misery could have been avoided if a certain ocean deity could have learnt better manners as a child and then, as an adult, kept his staff in place where it belonged (and I don't mean his trident). But without a doubt, her misery could have been avoided if Athena had not been so spiteful about Poseidon's slight and if she had not been so intent on casting the fault upon Medusa.

Can you think of other ways in which women assist patriarchy? I can think of many. In fact I can think of instances where women have turned out to be even more patriarchal than men.

How do we stop this? Because ultimately, whether we like it or not, some women are part of a vicious cycle that perpetuates patriarchal behaviors.

So what can we do? It is hard. Education is a big factor. We need to raise educated, strong women who are confident and not embarrassed with archaic modes of thought. At a social level, we educate them to shun traditional male-favouring attitudes. They must, in turn, not grow to favour their sons over their daughters. But most importantly, we give them confidence in themselves as individuals. We teach them the joy of being women, women who can overcome their insecurities. We give them a belief that life is filled with opportunities and we give them these opportunities whenever it is in our power and in their best interests.

We teach them to give, just as we expect them to be spiritually generous toward their own sisters.

We teach them to protect their own sisters, rather than fear them in the same way that generations of men have feared Medusa.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Shadow of the Wind - The Movie

This post is the creative birth child of a desperate The Shadow of the Wind fan calling for a movie production that will bring to life Julian Carax and Daniel Sempere; calling for a visual masterpiece that will stir images of a Gothic Barcelona stifled in Francoism.

Please indulge my frivolities and please do not scorn me if I cast someone that you disagree with. So without further ado, let's get this show on the road!

I had heard that The Others' director Pedro Amenabar was a contender for The Shadow of the Wind but my personal choice is for visionary Jean Pierre Jeunet. To understand why I favor Jeunet, one has to look at the standout features of The Shadow of the Wind and how they compare favorably with Jeunet's past films.

To begin the novel is overshadowed by an ominous atmosphere which is both the result of the Spanish Civil war's aftermath and a tragic mystery centering around an author's life. The main character, Daniel, grows up in an almost surreal community replete with dark realities. If you have seen City of Lost Children, you will understand that Jeunet is no stranger to nightmarish realms.

Coupled with this shadowy setting, is the Sempere bookshop and home, which sees many visitors and in which many heart warming exchanges between characters take place. This sense of a gathered community, one that brings with it some humor, much caricature and always much heart, resounds throughout the novel and is a clear reminder of what Jeunet has and can achieve. It recalls the delightful Brasserie gatherings in the masterpiece, Amelie just as it recalls the band of eccentric social outcasts who form a family in Micmacs.

And then last but not least, we have the core of the novel; the slow, intensely paced and extremely well-written unraveling of its mystery which involves quite a number of characters. Again, I cannot think of a more adept director than Jeunet who, as evidenced by A Very Long Engagement does an excellent job at juggling a complex historical mystery together with judicious use of flashbacks, while still keeping the audience's fascination for the many and varied characters, who due to cinema's nature can only ever possess limited screen time. For this same reason, I am also adamant that Jeunet should prepare The Shadow of the Wind's film adaptation. During the screenwriting exercise, he may find it enriching to collaborate with the book's author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who is also a former screenwriter.

So that was the heavy part. Now, for the acting cast!

Clara Barceló
Bella Heathcote
Bella's enormous doe-like eyes, her delicate grooming and fragile beauty are perfect for the role of the tragically vain and blind Clara. Heathcote may not agree to nudity scenes which is unfortunate but her youthful porcelain skin is a real production value for this role.

Colin Farrell
I have complete trust in Colin Farrell to deliver what is the most exciting, endearing and entertaining character in the whole novel. He is believable as an ex spy and someone who would survive much of the brutality that Fermin survives. Fermin is a tad too skinny to be embodied by Farrell but method acting might remedy this detail.

Daniel's father - Mr Sempere
Antonio Banderas
Perhaps as a result of his apparent redundancy to the whole mystery and to the novel's plot, Mr Sempere was the most touching and kindest character in the story. His entire meaning was contained in the endless love and patience he gave his son. I think Antonio Banderas, especially through his familiar accented voice, has the ability to project much heart and damn it, it is his duty as a fellow Spaniard to Zafón, that he fill this noble role.

Julián Carax
Robert Pattinson
Maybe because I've seen him play a vampire freak too many times and because his beautiful face would serve the novel's tragedy interests only too well (if you know what I mean), I am unable to shake off the idea that James Patterson should play the role of fated author, Julian Carax. I think Nuria Montfort's complete adulation would also seem believable given Patterson's charming looks. Finally I like the simmering intensity that Patterson is able to project on screen and the fact that he can look both menacing and innocent. I think the production values are evident but he would need to dye his hair black.

Daniel Sempere
James Franco
As with many novels (but not all), I was not particularly attached to the main character who I mainly conceived as a vehicle for experiencing this amazing story. Still the lead cast needs to be likable and draw audiences. I chose James Franco because of his audience appeal and because I did enjoy his performance in the latest Oz movie. But mostly I chose him because 1. he is believable as the son of Antonio Banderas which I've cast as Mr Sempere and 2. I can imagine-as desired by the novel-that someone might find him slightly resembling of Pattinson whom I've previously cast as Carax. Overall his dark physique works well but he is still someone I can imagine being punched around several times in a pathetic way. Finally he would be believable as a coward who eventually redeems himself.

Mark Ruffalo vs Jude Law
Infinitely wise, self-sacrificing, idealistic, placing friendship before love, Sigmund Freud fan and downright too-good-to-be-true character...yet he was one of my favorite characters in the novel. His motives are so beautiful that one wants to cry or just scream, "are-you-for-real?" The pathos that this character generates needs to be handled with great care. We need a naturalistic delivery. Someone who can move us and create tear-jerking moments while remaining seemingly aloof and collected. Both Mark Ruffalo and Jude Law would be amazing. They would each lend themselves well to the role of wasted-tuberculosis-sufferer-burning-the-hours-to-raise-money-for-a-friend, but Ruffalo looks more Spanish and has earned philanthropic credentials from his latest role in Now You See Me.

Sophie Carax
Audrey Tautou
Why? Firstly because she is French, like the character but also because Jeunet made her a gamine celebrity through Amelie and hopefully he can un-typecast her with this more daring role. And I think Tautou needs to be pushed a little, to go beyond her safe roles which she did in Dirty Pretty Things. Somewhat.

Penelope Aldaya
Anne Hathaway
There is a highly dramatic scene in The Shadow of the Wind that represents not only the culmination of a mystery's resolution but also, all that is cruel about a misogynistic, patriarchal society and one that is also still recovering from the horrors and senselessness of the Spanish civil war. This scene needs to be portrayed by someone whose suffering would leave us gutted. Someone whose doll like beauty and short screen time would remove nothing from the attachment we feel towards her when she suffers her tragic fate. I have thought of her youthful features (Penelope is barely 17), her almond hair and the expert acting that this requires and have settled on Anne Hathaway. I know that Hathaway is much older but I think she might be able to pull it off with her hair lightened and worn loose. She also looks Spanish. Hathaway impeccably portrayed Fantine's suffering in Les Miserables and will no doubt shine as Penelope.

Beatrix Aguilar
Emma Stone
A striking red head with green eyes and beautiful skin. Someone who can also inspire fear and who one can imagine flirting with both older professors and danger. Someone feisty and sharp. I think Emma Stone works well here.

Francisco Javier Fumero
Ricardo Darín
A villain makes a film and needs to be well thought out. He requires stellar acting. Ever since I saw Argentinian actor, Ricardo Darín in The Secret in their Eyes, I have been under his spell. He would work splendidly as the charismatic yet sadistic and vengeful cop, Fumero. Darín's mature presence and astute gaze lend themselves well to the calculating Fumero. Darín is also believable as a dangerous law officer who has risen in the ranks to become both a feared and respected member of society.

Fumero's mother
Penelope Cruz
If you've seen Jamon, Jamon, Don't Move and To Rome with Love, you would know that no one does trashy foul mouth better than La Cruz. That she has the advantage of understanding Spanish cultural nuances to properly caricature this fascinating character is no understatement. No matter that she is strikingly beautiful, Cruz will no doubt successfully portray this social wannabe creature who spawns the devil himself. The villain's mother is so pivotal to a story that only a strong actress will do. Besides, it is only right that one of Spain's most beautiful women should become this devil's mother.

Don Frederico Flavia
Javier Bardem
It is only fair, given his titillating exposition as Silva in the latest Bond, that Javier Bardem should be given a chance to dress as he pleases from time to time. But seriously, I like the contrast between Bardem's threatening build à la No Country For Old Men, and the fragile, sensitive disposition of Frederico, the watchmaker. I also think this casting subverts the ostensibly macho, garlic-chewing and misogynistic role that Bardem took on years ago in Spain's glorious cinematic export, Jamon, Jamon. Finally, I think it would work well with Bardem's often high pitched voice and his ability to affect a sophisticated mannerism.

There are several characters who I've not yet cast, including the bitter Jorge Aldaya, his wealthy parents, Nuria Montfort and Julian's own father. Please feel free to leave comments about your casting thoughts for these, along with any suggestions you may have for the already cast characters.

While this has been a fictitious exercise, I am still entertaining the grand hopes that The Shadow of the Wind will be shot some day. Zafón  you, who it has been said, have no intention of adapting your masterpiece for screen, I hope you understand my love for this book and my equal love of cinema. A cinematic adaptation of The Shadow of the Wind would not purport to be better-than or complementary to the book. It is an art in itself, a joy of creation and a challenge to master. The rendering of historical Barcelona would be an artistic director's dream. Who would not enjoy working on such a masterpiece? I am certain that many actors would be overjoyed to interpret one of your fascinating characters. Why deprive them of that pleasure? And why rob millions of people who actively prefer cinema to reading, or who cannot read for that matter, of the pleasure of seeing this story on screen?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Candeau Drawings

Bourgeois Ladies

When I was a little girl and living in France, I stumbled upon gorgeous sketches. These had been drawn by some distant aunt or cousin of my grandfather, at the turn of the 20th century.

I can barely remember the artists' names but these drawings were so lovely that I wondered why they were packed away in a dusty folder, together with my grandfather's genealogy files and century old research documents.

Mes Petits Bretons - an homage to Brittany
Bretons youth in traditional costume, dancing over the sea 
with the outline of a Carnac dolmen on the horizon

My grandfather, Yves Candeau, probably noted my intense interest in his genealogy work because upon his last visit to Australia, he left all his original jaundiced files at my parents' home. The edited and digitised version of his work was copied multiple times, and shared with each of my relatives. But I had the privilege of seeing his old files in our lounge closet.

When I left home, I took with me Yves Candeau's files and the drawings that in my youth, I had longed to unveil.

This is what you see in this post and I'm so happy to be able to finally share them.

The words "Je pense a vous souvent" (I think of you often) 
appear on this lovely Art Nouveau sketch

Detail from Mes Petits Bretons (my ultimate favourite)

It goes without saying that if you wish to digitally use or reference any of these drawings (and any personal photos I have previously posted in this blog) please do not do so without my permission. On the other hand, any reproduction and printing of these drawings is out of the question. These drawings remain copyright and belong to Yves Candeau's descendants. Thank you. :)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

D'Artagnan in Nantes

One cannot pass through the city of Nantes in Brittany, France without spending some time visiting the magnificent Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The back of Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

While the building was destroyed several times, including during WWII and following a major fire in 1972, the cathedral's foundation dates from 1434.

The cathedral houses an awe inspiring Gothic interior together with an ornate tomb that Anne de Bretagne (aka, Duchess of Brittany, the richest woman in Europe in her time and twice Queen of France) once commissioned to honour her parents.

The tomb of Francis II and Margaret de Foix,
Parents of Anne of Brittany

But what held my interest while in Nantes was the political intrigue that supposedly took place at the front of this cathedral on September 5, 1661.

We are familiar with D'Artagnan from the famous novel, The Three Musketeers. While its author, Alexandre Dumas no doubt took many liberties with creating his character, what is certain is that the original D'Artagnan was also a highly skilled man-of-arms attached to the royal court.

D'Artagnan served Louis XIV as Captain of the Musketeers of the Guards. Created in 1622, the Musketeers of the Guards were entrusted with protecting the King outside his palace. They were skilled with fighting both on foot and on horseback.

D'Artagnan had a long career in espionage. Louis XIV shared many delicate secrets with him. One such secret was that the King had had enough of his finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet.

Fouquet, an admirer of grand architecture had recently spared no expense in building his lavish Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. Upon completion of this palace in 1661, Fouquet held dazzling celebrations where supposedly every guest was granted a horse. Even the great poet La Fontaine and the playwright, Moliere, good friends of Fouquet were invited at the inauguration, where a Moliere play was performed while an impressive dinner and fireworks show took place.

Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

Of course there was no reason for Louis XIV to feel outdone by the beauty of Fouquet's new palace, or by the extravagant outlays of his minister. After all, hadn't our Sun King himself built the incomparable Chateau de Versailles?

Actually, no. At this time, Louis XIV had not yet expanded Versailles palace to the level of grandeur it would have for years to come. That feat would come much later, starting in 1669 and one can certainly imagine where the inspiration came from... Therefore, back in 1661, Louis XIV felt severely upstaged.

But circumstances were in his favour.

At the time, the man in charge of tax reforms, a certain Jean-Baptiste Colbert made an embezzlement attack on Fouquet. This was partly to secure himself the post of finance minister, which he eventually did take. Vexed as he was by Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte, Louis XIV naturally chose to attribute Fouquet's magnificent creation to his evident misappropriation of the royal treasury. In short, Jean-Baptiste Colbert's accusation was welcomed since it allowed our 22 year old king to appease his wounded ego by giving him an opportunity to do away with Fouquet.

Three weeks after visiting Vaux for the inaugurations, Louis XIV left for Nantes, kindly inviting Fouquet with him. In doing so, the king took Fouquet away from his own entourage who may have protected him. His guard down, and certain of having secured himself the king's favour, Fouquet never once suspected that D'Artagnan was in Nantes with his own royal mission...

On September 5, 1661, in front of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Fouquet was arrested by Captain D'Artagnan.

Too bad our musketeer was on the wrong side of history.

It turned out that Fouquet had built part of the Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte especially for Louis XIV and had sought to flatter his king in an attempt to become his advisor. The king's attack was unjustified and in fact during his trial, Fouquet held the French public's sympathy, including that of poet La Fontaine. Fouquet's trial was in breach of many forms of justice and lasted almost three years. It became known as the "trial of the century". The court finally decided on eternal banishment but King Louis had the entire judge panel replaced in an attempt to reach a death sentence. He clearly wanted Fouquet eliminated. Again the court decided on solitary confinement. Faced with this, King Louis dictated cruel conditions, stipulating that Nicolas Fouquet was not to be permitted to read nor write and the soldiers guarding him were not to talk to him on penalty of death.

Our misled D'Artagnan was assigned to guard Nicolas Fouquet for four years until his final life imprisonment. To our musketeer's defense, it is said that upon receiving his orders from the king, d'Artagnan wept, so torn was he between his duty to Louis XIV and his friendship for Fouquet which persisted months later. It was also said that d'Artagnan was never able to forgive himself.

Nicolas Fouquet, a man who before his arrest was presumably the most wealthy and powerful person in France, suffered a terrible unjust fate. It is said that his cruel punishment resembles that of the Man in the Iron Mask and this has led some authors to trace the identity of Alexandre Dumas' Man in the Iron Mask to Nicolas Fouquet.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Vietnamese Child

Peering into age old family albums while visiting my Vietnamese grandmother in France revealed a treasure trove of historical wonders.

It was on one afternoon during May this year, that I found this wonderful photo of my grandmother, Phuong Lan.

Phuong Lan at ten

I was blown away, partly by the intensity of her gaze and by the exoticism of the Vietnamese setting. I love the way her hand is reaching out to caress that leaf. It is a hauntingly beautiful photo. You must know that my grandmother's mother, a princess, had eloped with a French man when Phuong Lan was only an infant. She disgarded her baby, leaving Phuong Lan with her father, never to return. Maybe I am imagining this but my grandmother's expression in this photo is so solemn that I can't help but feel that she would have deeply resented being abandoned as a child.

She is ten years old in this photo and you will notice that her hair is completely shaved. I asked her why. In response, she gave a shy smile and answered, "That is the way we did things."

Since my return from France, I did a little research and I found that it is common practice in traditional Vietnamese communities to shave off a baby's head. A newborn's hair is considered 'dirty' or not as healthy. It is thought that by shaving it off, one gives better chance for new, healthier hair to grow later. From a rational viewpoint, this practice would at least inhibit the growth of lice and other disease carrying agents to grow in the hair. Another interesting finding is that Vietnamese parents traditionally resort to practices that aim to 'confuse the evil spirits' who could potentially harm their child. It is best for example to call a child with an unpleasant name rather than use words to praise how beautiful it is. The idea is that spirits would not be attracted to an 'ugly' child. Similarly a girl, with a shaved head might look less attractive to the evil spirits hence ensuring that she is safe.

I mentioned in a post years ago, that when she married my grandfather, Yves Candeau, one of the conditions placed on my grandmother by her mandarin father was that she ought to never cut her hair. At this time, when she was twenty-four, her hair had grown long and healthy, down to her ankles. I ignore whether the shaving tradition she had followed as a child had paid off but she certainly had an abundant bunch of gorgeous hair as an adult!

And here she is in all her glory. 
She told me this is one of her favorite photos.