Thursday, October 17, 2013

Incarnate is out! A study in anthropology

Incarnate is out! Incarnate is out!

Okay, first. I know it Monday was three days ago after a week of absence, but the build up of thunderstorms and major stress over having to change my cuddly relationship with Willie due to her new parrot maturity created a bitch of a neck ache. Willie has decided instead of her mommy I am now her mate. She is feather plucking in preparation for her nest. She's yanked a few feathers that still had blood in them and had it fountain down her chest. She got a bird birth control shot but in addition the vet tells me I have to stop petting her. Every time I see her I want to pick her up and comfort her. Instead I have to stimulate her intellectually through stupid pet tricks. I hate stupid pet tricks. I get pets to pet and let flower to their own individuality. But this kills me.



My latest novel, Incarnate, is out. Note at the side you may buy it in kindle or trade paperback. So here's to the anthropologists! I've dedicated the book to all the ones I know and love. They study human culture. We make human culture up. My friends helped me study my created culture in this book.

Incarnate began as a dream, wildly different than it ended up. After development that got it farther and farther from the original dream, I came up with essentially the plot and many of the characters I am using today. I was a sophomore in college. A third of the way through the book, I put it it away. I had at least enough maturity to realize I was in no way mature enough to write this book.


Okay. So let's look at the notable details. It isn't urban. I have to call it fusion rather than high. Nobody is noble in this. In fact, once I am past slavery, my urban back tang sneaks in. The world is serious, yes. But that doesn't stop the characters from being funny, sarcastic, and at times petty. It is a more traditional fantasy novel in that an organized attempt to fight back occurs. My friend and old writing partner RoseAnna describes at least three of my novels under the plot of, "Run away!" Eventually, things usually become more complicated for the characters, but, hell. That's what I'd do.

I have fifty pages of dropping Meryt--my main character--into the vile, violent slavery that pervades the island but that she has largely been spared before. I pull from horror with slavery based on the earlier Carribean, which I actually softened for the book. At the same time my memoir taught me that what doesn't let a reader slid over your reading is an attention to the small details--incongruous, they are the ones that will haunt you.

Rape is a method of emotionally and physically denying men and women humanity. An account of slavery without it flinches. I was thirteen the first time a friend told me about getting raped. Do men have to go through this rites of passage conversation that echoes again and again as you get older? The guys who told me had only told me. Then my info turned first hand. In the book, I let Meryt listen to her friend in that conversation. So, yeah. I used memoir.

Having had fits about Willie and dissected the fusion, I'll get to the main point. Believe it or not this is my third or fourth try writing this blog when I realized how easy it was to sum up my experience here: Anthropology.

So in this book everyone struggles towards or against deities walking the earth again. Already, a small rebel village deep in the jungle brings back the old ways of the native peoples of the enslaved island. I wanted this culture to be believable, but only it's own. No matter what I studied in preparation, I wanted something original.

In a situation like this one, when the creation of this village, this surge of freedom and life and spirituality sparked by snake bit journeys with a god, when the people hold their breath on the eve of their goddess's return, it is way too easy to cop out. What is a cardinal rule of fantasy? Whatever the fantastic in the book is, it can be anything as long as it maintains internal logic. As long as you don't break your own rules, you are cool.

Okay, so, what if the magic is a religion that's real? I could create mangled chaos and I wouldn't break a rule as long as I kept saying, "Well, She said so."

That sucks. I always put world building second to character, and if I take it all the way back to the dream, I maintained the essence of the character while building an entirely different context. I didn't want my world building to eat my characters, but I wanted a real and quite foreign world for them. Since their main deity is a Goddess I wanted to make the culture matriarchal, and do some fun things with gender.

Fantasy readers put up with a lot of bullshit as long as the magic system used is internally logically and consistent. But we will turn on an author in a second if they break their own rules.

I believe that as much as the magic system, and albeit in some fantasy novels they are pretty much the same, that the culture rules should be internally consistent and viable. A culture should be able to exist and function within the author's world, and that culture should not be broken due to convenience for the writer. In other words, authors and readers are in some ways amateur anthropologists.

When creating a culture, anthropology is my best friend. Anthropology is the study of human culture. Yeah. The umbrella is wide as hell. But when psychology and sociology racked up more and more statistics to hide behind this concept of objectivity, anthropology said, bullshit! Objectivity is bullshit! There is absolutely no way that you can take your own world experiences out of a study. So anthropologists ran around the world, joining various cultures and chilling inside them and making their experiences part of the study.

This makes anthropologists kick ass. What it has to do with fantasy is that we are all amateur anthropologists. Every time we build a world, we essentially find an in to a foreign culture and make it make sense to people outside those experiences. In doing so, the author as well as their characters start becoming part of the world. I always find it an embarrassing author moment when I try to play a scrabble word that I made up for a book.

In the end, an anthropologist takes a culture apart, and an author puts one together. What anthropologists look at as the study of culture, we look at as world building And, hey, I'm mainly an urban girl, so I could use a little help from my friends.

I came to Incarnate by way of using a lot of awesome anthropologists. I took an Intro to Anthro class way back at University of Michigan, which is when I was writing the first draft, and it served.

What served more, however, was sucking in info from my big bro, ">Steve, as he got his anthro degree.
(Steve with Evette Rios, his wife) He was all anthro and creative writing. I was about the psych and creative writing. Studies that serve creative writing well when you want to get into someone's head. Steve made me fall in love with mythology, more correctly called tales in anthropology, since mythology contains the concept that what you are talking about as false, and anthropologists do not like to write as one culture's conceptions of the world as more true than others.

Steve got me into the old school myths that hadn't been made English digestible by their original transcribers. In this sense, they were written as they had been created, with an oral story telling basis. He also taught me how to see that as wild as it seems, each set of tales that a culture created their world by was internally consistent. I tried to create an oral story telling sound for some of Incarnate

My endlessly mentioned friend RoseAnna bulldozes her way through a doctoral dissertation in applied anthropology as we speak, and so I've had her to lean on since we started college together.
(RoseAnna on a writing retreat in the Porcupine Mountains) She uses her own world and character building skills in a current trickle of her free time in the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) She was in on the ground floor of coming up with the basics of my new world and telling me whether or not I was working on something that could be. Of course, many things changed along the way from the point I set the book down and picked it back up again.

As I toiled away in Oakland, CA, years later, I refined and changed many aspects of the culture and I bugged my friend Lauren, who was in Pittsburgh.
(Lauren and children in Mexico while she is working her site) Hey, I was talking to her every night anyway. She's in the archeology. To get it right, archeology is part of anthropology. So archeology has to be anthropology but anthropology doesn't have to be archeology. Archeology, to be correct, is the study of a culture through their stuff. So while Lauren is writing her dissertation about the common ancient Mayan people in Palanque--not the ones who got to hang in all step pyramids and temples we see pictures of, she could be writing a dissertation about the contents of a Walmart or of your bathroom and it would still be archeology. Dinosaurs are all about paleontology, which is not related to archeology. Common mistake. And if I didn't get all of that right, Lauren is so going to kick my ass.

She gave me a thumbs up on having created a final project that could have evolved and functioned the way I wanted it to. Few times in my life have I felt that cool.

When I say I dedicate the book to the anthropologists in my life, these are the solid crew I am talking about, though of course growing up in my parents' relativistic view of the world played a part in where both my brother and I went.

Having done a hurrah for anthropology's part in fantasy, and for my friends, I'll let you be on your way if you wish, but below is a more intellectual discussion on how to view a book as an anthropologist through how I created Incarnate.



For the first twenty years of her life, my main gal Meryt took care of her first owner, an elderly, infirm, and increasingly out of it an old woman. This gave her a relatively benign experience of slavery with a love/hate relationship to her owner. That way I would have fresh eyes for the big, ugly slavery. I needed my intense fifty pages of the book, as little time as it takes up, to fuel, Meryt's arc for the rest of the book
While I obviously have to deal with all of my subjects with my due dillegenc3 of seriousness, I manage to make my characters realistically involved, but not drown or broken. I've spoken before about the fact that I like to use the really awful things in life sparingly, but realistically.

While fighting runs throughout the book, I distilled the slavery into the first fifty pages. I also use what I learned in memoir: There is beauty, humor, and redemption in moments of the every day.

What I wanted to concentrate on, however, was Meryt's introduction to the village in the jungle--where the classic culture of the mer has been attempted to be recovered. My research I did created a society that was not derivitive of real life or a frankenstein. For this, I leaned heavily on my resources in anthropology.


The ailif world is fairly vague and generically European conquerors. I know more about them, but they aren't the point. They never conquered the interior of the island. There, a group of escaped slaves forged a village, based on visions of the real mer world--before conquering--by their leader. This is where K'tral is kept in the Temple created during the golden age of the mer, now reborn. The village, the culture, the features--I wanted to create the mer as a people derrivitive of no one, not a Frankenstein, but a culture that could work, evolve and at least at one point have existed in reality. That the tales functioned to reinforce and be born of the culture. I didn't want to use the fact that in a slip of reality more than mortal, how the world came to be, who the Goddess and Her Children are, and how They are, did create the mer.


The culture is governed by religion. In theory, the incarnate Meren, Goddess over all with the help of Cer, Her Child, Innocent, Consort, Death-Bringer, Hunter, Champion, and Man'e--a form of entertainer in the culture. Meren has many more names than that but let's just say whem She wants, She can pretty much do it all.

When the book begins, there has not been an incarnate of Meren since a long time before the ailifs came. For the first time in centuries, Cer has incarnate in the human body of K'tral. The culture is ruled by a priestess whose visions given by Cer have made this village possible. However, the message was filtered by her human experience, and colored by it. In short, I did not want a perfect culture designed by a perfect God hoping His perfect Goddess will come back.

The priestesses, and all priestess and a smaller number of priests after are chosen by the bite of the holy koro snake, whose venom sends them on a dream journey from which they awake a priestess in training. That's magic.

What isn't so much is that the church holds power and prestige over the village. The council sets, interprets, and carries out law. They have some holy powers, but the villagers must cough up a tribute of a size depending on the magnitude of the ritual, the power of the person performing the ceremony, the ceremony in question, and the resources of the citizen. The order also collects a tithe of all crops and needed crafts.

Priestesses have duites in the Temple as well (there are no servants) but have meals, sleeping and common quarters, the luxuries provided by the revived Temple of the mer classic period, including hot running water, and credit--the only form of money in the village--to be used as they see fit. They have a lot of freedom. This is typic of a religious ruling class throughout time.

The villagers are not hurting, but live in mud, clay and tree frond compounds in the valley below. They use a barter system except for the credit the order give them, which is later redeemable for services from the church.

Now here's the rub. With Meren as the Creator and Goddess over All, I wanted a matriarchal culture. There either have or have not been true matriarchal societies throughout known history. Classically, it has been said no. The ruling class was defined by who held the governmental positions. Who ran domestic affairs, had their own councils defining their spheres of life, the ones with the right to divorce, matrilineal and matrifocal societies were not taken into account. Now some scholars waver on whether or not their measures hold, but for some strange reason the view that the world has always been patriarchal everywhere holds.

Shining in Darkness also featured a religion run world. It's hard to avoid when your Goddesses and Gods are a certainty that interfere in your world. However, the culture was, compared to the new mer society, advanced and egalitarian.

But I didn't want a matriarchal society just because MEREN SAID SO. I wanted a working model of a society that would be matriarchal because it made sense.

So. Women farm in plots outside the village. The villagers live on what is farmed and gathered from the jungle. Meat is hunted, not domesticated, and while a prestigious home has it, it is not necessary. Men, especially young men, hunt and raid. A raider helps slaves to escape the palace, the only remotely nearby ailif civilization. They also fight the ailif soldiers who enter the forest, ostensibly searching for witches, but in fact trying to kill off the free mer and find the village. Both are dangerous jobs. The priestesses can do much in the way of healing, but a kill shot is a kill shot.

Women outnumber men, especially since as culture perpetuates itself, the more "valuable" slave women are usually those targeted for escapes. The women are also dependably in the village to manage the households and the affairs of the village that do not warrant priestess intervention. Even if the head priestess dreams, and her own hatred of the extremely male oriented society she was a slave of, had not decreed it, it makes sense for women to wield the clout.

Not because I love talking about it, but because many anthropologists and other members of the social sciences and historians love talking about it, we turn to sex, or rather the control of it. A prominent theory for the place of men and women in the world has to do with who fathered what. Some authorities posit that there might have been matriarchal societies way back before men caught on that sex meant children--their children. The system being inheritance and often reverence of ancestors, men wanted to make sure the boy they had was in fact their child.

To this day, cultures around the world are obsessed with controlling female sexuality in order to assure paternity. A woman must be a virgin at marriage, must be kept close to home so that other men don't get a chance at them, sometimes must live and die either in their childhood home or their husband's home and that is it all because of this sex thing. Eventually women become revered as delicate and above the soil of every day life. How little your wife does becomes a mark of your success.

Madonna and whore complexes appear when women and men are raised that women are above enjoying the act of sex, or knowing about it before it is necessary, since if they aren't getting anything out of it but the eventual joy of a child, they have less chance to stray.

In some cultures, to enforce this physically, young girls have their clit and everything else hanging out removed, often in as subpar health conditions as an old woman scraping it all out with a sharp stick or piece of glass and then sewing the vagina together except for a small hole, which scars into place. This hole functions for peeing, periods, and sex, making all of them painful. It also becomes neccessary to cut the woman open for child birth and sew her up afterwards. A good, respectable woman goes through all this. To have an uncut, unsewed vagina is to be a dirty slut who is unsuitable for marriage since she will stray. Note that an old woman that performs this. Despite the fact little girls die having female genital mutilation performed, it is often the mothers who are the most insistent it be done. Women persecute women as they are desperate have their little girl become a woman worth a good marriage, genital mutilation ensuring a good life.

Huh. And I had to reverse all that.

If you are wondering, my mother minored in women studies for her MFA in the eighties. I learned gender studies young.

More to the point, I wanted to reverse all that. I didn't want to create the perfect, nonviolent society because everyone really knows if women ruled the earth it would be perfect. I wanted to highlight sexism in our world by reversing it in the mer society.

So I have been accused this is my cause book. I feel justified in it, however, because it isn't me on the soap box. I wanted my main crew of characters to aspire to a changing, improved world other than by violence. My heroine ends up at the top of the power structure. I wanted her to use her place to help people because she respects their humanity and hates all kinds of persecution--even that which gives her more privilege. Okay--so that may be soap boxing too. But I couldn't love a sexist heroine any more than I could love a sexist hero.

Plus, I am not sure why THIS is my cause book. My view as a writer, as would an anthropologist, colors everything I write. My characters, what they believe in, and what they face, almost never lines up with mass culture enough so that someone couldn't point at me for having a cause somewhere. Just the fact positive sex, feminism, and positive and negative images of homosexuality, highlighting our culture's current struggle with the concept of a positive image of same sex relationships--I have causes. Ergo, my characters and my books do.

Back to the mer. I settled the economic and political issues. How the hell do I fight my way through the ugly side of sex? First of all, a woman's baby had to be a woman's baby. If a child is counted as a legitimate member of the woman's family whether she sleeps exclusively with the husband or with the whole town, we don't have to worry about sequestering her.

In this society, men are still allowed out to hunt and raid, to go to festivals and market, but how can I create the Cult of Manhood? Limit their semen. A boy is seen to be born with too much soul--represented by white and associated with many concepts. Because he has "too much soul" he is frivolous, and has no head for the brass tacks. When he has sex, he loses part of this "soul" each time. A boy who wastes his "soul" eventually becomes useless to create well balanced children. He doesn't hunt, raid, or keep house and take care of children as well. He is a shame on his family.

Extended families of a woman and her daughters must guard their young men from randy young women. If they want him to go to a good household of wives (a woman and her daughters), and get a good husband price for him, they must be able to hold up their heads when they guarantee him ready to father many children.

At this rate, I hope you can feel the gist of the different ways anthropology functions in world building and whether or not a reader believes the world building to have been successful. I could go on and on, but I think both of us would have a lot more fun reading the book.

Once again, love to my anthropologists.

4 comments:

  1. I like the anthropology angle. . . to me, fantasy is desperately real. It's the process children use, and societies use, to pose survival questions.

    What if you found out you--or someone in your village-- did have unusual powers?
    What if warring factions struggled to control hypnotic/telekinetic/vudun power?
    What if a girl, long ago sacrificed, reanimated in your presence and needed help?
    What if everyone you trusted believed you would incarnate as a goddess?
    What if you loved a woman, and then fell in love with a man?

    The thing I love about Bets Davies' protagonists is that they are human, flawed, funny, quirky, prone to break into long lyrics, and try, for the most part, to act honorably. Most of her lovers are straight. Some are gay. Neither group is defined solely by sexual orientation. Most would help you if you ran out of coffee or locked yourself out of your apartment.

    Not all, though. Some would eat your heart.

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    1. Wow. I am so complimented. This has to be one of the greatest reviews I've ever gotten! You rule.

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  2. Anthropology is I think a great means for getting outside your assumptions--very useful in writing fantasy or any kind of speculative fiction! The hard part is that at the undergrad level, you learn all about how cultures are internally consistent systems that function together--as a graduate student you then take all that apart, deconstructing culture to show how it is constructed, discursive, and contested. Incarnate however manages a nice balance of both--there is an internal logic to the culture of the Mer, making it credible, but at the same time people are actively interpreting, re-interpreting, and even questioning that culture.

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    1. Thanks for the vote of anthropological confidence. I tried hard for an amateur.

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