The Reader’s Gazetteer Special: Inventing Ruritania (Vesna Goldsworthy)

A paperback copy of 'Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination' lies on a map of Europe

Something of a departure from the main scope of this series, Inventing Ruritania is, despite the title, about real places. And it’s non-fiction. However, it’s very relevant to the theme. I was very pleased to receive a copy of this for Christmas, and ambled through it a chapter at a time.

I don’t read much academic writing these days, but found this perfectly easy to follow. The main thrust of Vesna Goldsworthy’s argument is that the global understanding of the Balkans has been shaped by Anglophone, primarily British, literature about the region, arguably to the detriment of its standing. The subtitle tells the story: the imperialism of the imagination. Because our primary interaction with the Balkans is in fiction in which the public-school-educated British traveller sorts the country out – or finds the task impossible – we assume that the real thing needs sorting out by us, too. Something that of course rings particularly hollow at the moment, when the public-school-educated British men appear incapable of running their own country.

(I’m paraphrasing severely here. But this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work – or don’t – on my own Ruritanian effort.)

Goldsworthy’s examples are wide-ranging; she begins with Byron’s account of Greece and progresses through nineteenth century British political interest in Bulgaria before getting to the popular fiction from which she gets her title. The Prisoner of Zenda and Dracula are joined by a whole library’s worth of books that didn’t make it to Penguin Classics. Moving into the twentieth century, we get Buchan and Christie, the ‘comic’ literature of Durrell and Waugh, and the non-fiction of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Some of these books set their action in a fictional country that is explicitly located in the Balkans. Some are set in real-life Balkan countries.

While writers all over the world are prone to appropriating other people’s cultures to make an exotic backdrop (nothing that I have heard about Red, White and Royal Blue, for example, persuades me that I would be able to read it without throwing the book at the wall), it’s true that the dominance of the English language puts what one might now call ‘own voices’ Balkan literature at a disadvantage. It’s true, too, that I know embarrassingly little about the region, and much of what I do know comes from English literature. (For years, all I knew of Romania was from Song For A Tattered Flag.) I’ve learned rather more just from reading this book.

‘Ruritania’ is perhaps a bit of a misnomer: as we established a few posts ago, and as Goldsworthy points out herself, going on the evidence that Anthony Hope gives us, the place can’t be any further south than real-life Bohemia. Still, it can’t be denied that when most people say ‘Ruritania’ they mean ‘somewhere in the Balkans’. My own feeling is that many authors, particularly contemporary ones, who use Ruritanian settings, do so to avoid appropriating real-life cultures while still having a government and maybe a monarchy to play with: the number of fictional tiny principalities squeezed in between real-life borders, I would argue, bear me out. Many seem to be borrowing Monaco or Liechtenstein rather than anywhere further south and east. But of course Goldsworthy’s talking about books that explicitly set their action either in named Balkan countries or in countries explicitly stated to be in the Balkan region: in this, the book doesn’t fit quite so well into this blog series after all.

More seriously, I do not have the author’s confidence that ‘the sort of generalised, open condescension [applied to Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians] would appal [the authors] if applied to Somalis or the peoples of Zaire’. In my experience, white people who are racist about other white people are perfectly capable about being racist about black people too.

However, I can’t truthfully say that either of these nitpicks undermine Goldsworthy’s point to any significant extent, and it’s left me with plenty to think about. And a few more books to add to my reading list.

Word of POD

Coloured pencil drawing of a dried-up bean pod with two mottled beige and purple beans

My Amazon sales for the month of December came through yesterday. While the numbers are nothing to shout about (the profit I make on each copy is somewhere between 6p and 40p) I’m pleased anyway.

There’s something about the concept of print-on-demand that I find absolutely thrilling. Somebody, somewhere, liked the idea of my book enough to bring a whole new copy into being. It’s like my own act of creation, in getting the wretched thing down in words, in miniature. Apart from The Real World sales, there are now two more copies of Speak Its Name (plus one I already knew about) and one more of A Spoke In The Wheel than there were at the end of November. (Incidentally, I’ve just noticed that the latter is down to £8.15 on Amazon.)

Ebook sales don’t feel quite the same, even though it’s the same principle: a person spends money to create a new copy. Even though I make more money off them. Even though I read plenty of ebooks myself. Part of it’s the fact that Smashwords notifies me of purchases immediately – always a delightful surprise, of course, but I also enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the report to come in to see how many paperbacks I’ve sold this month.

Part of it’s a (possibly unfounded) sense that a paperback purchase has a longer tail than an ebook. While it’s arguably easier to share an ebook than a hard copy (all you do is forward the email with the attachment), and while I’ve become more willing to buy books on the strength of seeing a recommendation on the internet, you don’t get that same thing of seeing a book on someone else’s shelves or table, picking it up, flicking through it or devouring it, borrowing it or buying your own…

A paperback copy might end up on a shelf in a charity shop or at a railway station, might be picked up by someone who’s never heard of me. Yes, part of it’s that intoxicating element of chance.

But mostly it’s knowing that several separate people have held in their hands, are perhaps reading at this very moment, books that didn’t physically exist six weeks ago. I hope they’re enjoying them.

Between books

Grey stone building with an arch that leads through it to another arch and a grassy space beyond.

If I were to tell you that I’m not writing anything at the moment, it would be an evident falsehood. I mean, here I am, tapping away, writing a post. I spent the afternoon writing things for work. And even when I’ve finished this post I’ll move on to the short story I’m trying to finish for an end of January deadline.

I’m not even not writing a book. Technically.

I have the Ruritanian thing, but that’s something I’m writing for fun, and when it stops being fun I stop writing it. I also stop writing it when real politics makes fictional politics feel either too depressing or too frivolous to write about. There are days when I think I can subvert the trope of the plucky English adventurer fixing other people’s countries, and there are days when it seems too far gone even to be subverted. I think I’ve worked out a way around that, but at present I don’t have the motivation for the plotting and planning and Post-It manoeuvres that it would need. I’ve written about 5000 words on it since Christmas. It’ll get done when it gets done, and if I’m happy with it I’ll publish it.

I have a couple of other semi-active projects – one on writing while keeping the day job, and one very specific and experimental anthology.

I know what comes next for Stancester, but I’m not starting on that for reasons including: a) I don’t know how it finishes; b) it feels a bit heavy; c) [monster story about how everyone who liked the first two will hate it because it won’t be lesfic]; d) I’ve only just been there.

So I’m not not writing, at all. But I am consciously playing with the idea of not writing, of seeing who I am when I’m not writing. I’m playing with the idea of being enough, of being sufficient, when I’m flopped on the sofa watching the skiing, when I’ve slept through my alarm, when I’m writing three words in half an hour, when I’m not writing anything at all. In these times when doing nothing has become the virtue that perhaps it always should have been, I’m giving myself a bit of space, and resisting the temptation to fill that space with work or guilt. Or trying to, anyway.

Perhaps what I really mean is that I’m writing when I feel like it, and writing what I feel like, and giving myself a break from the associated hustle. I am stepping away from Twitter, which (for me) seems to be the highway to fruitless rage and depression. I am dropping my expectations of when the next book will be finished and what it will be. I am going to stop chasing reviews. I might write nothing but short stories. I might write nothing at all. I might abandon the Ruritanian thing entirely, or I might get it out in time for Christmas. I might post here less, or I might post here more. You never know.

Sunday, 5pm, 3rd January

I was reading about the Herschels:

Caroline, out on the lawn, catching comets by the tail;

and William, stretching a ruler from star to star.


Across the street, my neighbour

climbed a ladder and gathered an armful of light,

wound round his elbow on invisible thread.


(Viewed with attention, like the Herschels’,

the Pleiades become a sisterhood

more inclusive than first thought.)


To see this for myself, I’d have to go out

in the dark garden, unafraid

of what I might learn, of what might

disrupt my preconceptions, require me

to expand my imagination,

and watch, and wait.

Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021

Stack of books with rainbow-coloured covers and text 'Sapphic Reading Challenge 2021'

This year Jae is running a Sapphic Reading Challenge: 50 categories, from which you can choose to read 10, 20, 50, or 100 books. There’ll be a big giveaway at the end of the year, although, as Jae says, “real prize, of course, is discovering a lot of awesome books and new favorite authors”.

My Stancester books, Speak Its Name and The Real World, fit a few of the categories:

  • Character with a disability or mental illness (7) – depression ended up being a major element of The Real World, though I don’t think I ever actually mentioned the word. I wrote a bit about that here.
  • Character is a book lover (8) – Lydia is doing an English Literature in Speak Its Name. By The Real World she’s mostly reading school stories.
  • Genre you don’t usually read (15) – well, I don’t know what you usually read, but if you don’t usually read literary fiction with overtly religious characters then these might fit.
  • Shy or socially awkward character (27) – Colette. It’s probably more obvious in The Real World, which is told from her point of view.
  • Bisexual or pansexual character (37) – Colette, again.
  • Part of a series (43) – either one would work, obviously! The Real World makes sense without having read Speak Its Name, but you do learn a couple of major plot points that you can’t then unknow.
  • Character works in STEM (48) – Colette’s studying chemistry at undergraduate level in Speak Its Name and working on her PhD in The Real World.

My short story Prima Donna appears in Supposed Crimes’ anthology Upstaged: an anthology of queer women and the performing arts, which would fit Anthology, short story collection, or novella (50).

And of course I might be a new-to-you author (45).

Jae also has a giveaway running now, so if you fancy winning a special journal in which to track your challenge progress, see this post.

Enjoy!

December Reflections 31: my word for 2021

a compass rose stamped in red ink with the words
LOVE
COURAGE
WATCHFULNESS
CLARITY
SOUPLESSE
HERITAGE
RESONANCE
handwritten around it, with LOVE at North and then proceeding in a clockwise direction, in black ink

Why use one word when eight will do? Less flippantly, it’s been my custom for the last few years now to set a compass for the coming twelve months. This year I’ve been layering the hours onto that eight-pointed cycle, too, so it looks rather like this (the hyperlinks go to the Angel of the Hour, which I’ve been using this year to give structure to my working day):

NORTH – LOVE – CHRISTMAS – VIGILS

NORTH EAST – COURAGE – CANDLEMAS – LAUDS

EAST – WATCHFULNESS – LADY DAY (or Easter) – PRIME

SOUTH EAST – CLARITY – MAY DAY – TERCE

SOUTH – FLOURISHING – ST JOHN – SEXT

SOUTH WEST – SOUPLESSE – LAMMAS – NONE

WEST – HERITAGE – MICHAELMAS – VESPERS

NORTH WEST – RESONANCE – ALL SAINTS – COMPLINE

There are some there I’ve used before – love, courage, clarity – and some new ones – heritage was a bit of a surprise, and souplesse comes from cycling commentary, where it means something like flexibility, style, smoothness. I think I’ll need to feel my way into both of those.

It probably deserves to have a space of its own, and not be mixed up with my takeaway order and what I did at work that day, but actually I rather like it that way. Because that’s the point of it: all time is holy; this dark into light, light into dark, cycle is the structure that underlies life as I experience it.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

square of blue-painted cardboard with a compass rose, labyrinth, stylised shell, and the names of the monastic hours and the quarter and cross-quarter days added in metallic paint

… time and space.

Thank you for the protection and privilege of being able to work from home.

Thank you for the opportunity to settle gently into our new home. Thank you for the business of settling in, as a distraction from the culture shock outside.

Thank you for the neighbours we’ve sort of met.

Thank you for the time to get another book done and out in the world.

Thank you for the time to reread Agatha Christie novels and watch skiing and generally do nothing of importance at all.

Thank you for the gift of three hours every working day.

Thank you for the garden, and books, and books in the garden.

Thank you for here. Thank you for now.

December Reflections 29: hope for the world

page marked with a grid, with three drawings in pencil and coloured pencil of people's faces in profile

Well, there’s the vaccine, obviously. Vaccines, plural. (Insert the usual bus joke here – but the ‘waiting ages’ part isn’t quite true this time, is it? Goes to show what can be done when the will and the funding can be found.) I for one am tentatively beginning to think of 2021 as being a little less of a blank than 2020, though of course I’ll be a long way down the list.

I seem to be shelving ‘hopes’ in the same place as ‘intentions‘: today, I just don’t have the energy for anything specific. (Though maybe we’re going to acquire a cat.) This prompt is looking more generally, though, and I’m going to go as general as you can get: humanity.

And by

hope for the world: humanity

I mean both

I hope that all over the world people will come to appreciate their kinship with all their fellow human beings, and will act accordingly

and also

I believe that any hope there is for this lovely, vulnerable, world, and for all its peoples, lies in our recognising and claiming our humanity, and in bearing the responsibility that we all have for our fellow human beings and for the world we live in

Whatever that looks like.

December Reflections 28: an intention for 2021

iecut plywood Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a circle with stars and a shooting star. Blue and green fairy lights can be seen through the gaps

In the immortal words of Rick from Casablanca, ‘I never make plans that far ahead’. Actually, that’s not entirely true. But I’m conscious today, as I have been for the last few days, that setting myself any kind of commitment or expectation feels unnecessary, uncalled for. Unfair on my future self who’ll have to act on it.

Today, I just don’t want to. And that feels like something to pay attention to.

Oh, I have a growing list of things I want to do When It’s Safe To Do So: ‘go to the cinema and watch more films’ and ‘take actual skating lessons’. Will that be in 2021? I hope so, but I’m not going to pin a year to it. I have plenty of vague thoughts about ‘more piano practice’ and ‘showing up to morning prayer’ and ‘finishing the next book, maybe in time for Christmas’, and other things like that. But the thing about things like that is that I’ve been adding more and more of those. It feels like time to stop. I expect the ones I really want to do something with, I’ll do something with.

So, as things stand, with three days left of 2020, my only commitment for 2021, is to make space. And that feels like plenty.

December Reflections 27: 2020 taught me…

blue sky, with a waxing gibbous moon large but faint in a gap between trees

Didn’t we do this just a few days ago? No, not quite. Well, has anything changed between then and now?

Yes. An eleventh hour Brexit deal. A lousy one, admittedly, but so much better than the alternative. And, it turns out, for me, better than the eleven months of things being more or less the same as they’d always been but knowing they were about to come to a screeching and painful halt. Well, you’ve been through this year, too. You know about that grim, resigned, fatalist waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop, wondering how and whether what’s going to happen next can turn out to be anything other than awful, wanting things to be different, goodness knows, but maybe not given how awful they might end up being…

2020 has taught me about change.

I wrote earlier this month about my self of eleven years ago and her inability, or stubborn refusal, to imagine that things might possibly get any better than they were. I’ve been thinking about the landscapes I’ve lived in, the way they’re shaped by time and tide, of how human intervention can only hold back so much of that process. It took me a little while to make the link with Goldengrove unleaving: a lot of this year’s depressive funk seems to have come from the realisation of my own mortality. Today I’ve been given occasion to remember my sixteen year old self, how resistant she was to change, how insistent on holding everything she could (precious little) in place, while all the while everything went on changing around her. This year I’ve felt just as helpless; it’s just been on a bigger scale.

This year, we’ve been sitting in this strange stasis, waiting. Waiting and hoping, waiting and dreading. I’ve hardly been travelling hopefully, but goodness knows I haven’t wanted to arrive, either. I haven’t wanted to know the news. And yet, when I’ve looked, it’s been awful, but not universally awful.

Will I remember this, next time I get stuck? Probably not, going on past form. Will I ever learn how to let myself imagine that things might change for the better? I fear that I might not. And yet it’s been the signs of change that have been the most comfort to me.