The role of embodiment in creative and scholarly enquiry: a plenary lecture

Last week I spent five days at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, to attend IONA: Early medieval studies on the islands of the North Atlantic—transformative networks, skills, theories, and methods for the future of the field. They aren’t kidding about the transformative bit: I’ve never been to anything like it. It was a purely academic conference that felt like the best WisCon or ICFA ever. Super collaborative and cooperative. If you’re even remotely interested in either the early medieval or the future of academic conferences, you should go read the programme. And perhaps start planning to attend the next IONA, which will be at King’s College London, November 2021.

I was one of the plenary speakers. Here’s the description of my lecture:

This plenary presentation discusses how Griffith’s most recent novel, Hild (2013) operates as a second-order discourse on the illusory nature of history’s immutability: how the novel deconstructs the intersectional development of oppressive discourse on gender, sexual orientation, race, and (with forthcoming Hild sequel Menewood) disability. Central to Griffith’s address is why she chose a queer female protagonist for these novels set in seventh-century Britain, and era of ethnogenesis and cultural change. In doing so, Griffith focuses on the embodiment of the novel, protagonist, and author to argue for the urgent necessity of acknowledging and incorporating one’s understanding of embodiment—and, therefore, identity—into not only the creative arts but scholarly inquiry.

I’m linking here to the PDF of my plenary, plus the slides.* I’ll probably leave them up until the end of the month then take them down. So if you want them, get them now. And then go look at the pretty new IONA website.

Many thanks to Clare Lees for the lovely introduction, and Matt Hussey for organising a splendid conference and inviting me to speak.


*Link fixed

An honourable man

Ten days ago I gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral. I’ve made many speeches, but this was one of the hardest. Grief is an unpredictable as a wild dog. Right up until I spoke I had no idea whether or not I could keep grief from savaging me mid-sentence. But I gave the whole thing—I even sang “Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women”—without a wobble, right up until the last three words.

Cheers, Dad.

My father in his late 80s, enjoying a pint.


An Honourable Man

I loved my father. He was an honourable man. A man of his word. And very much a man of his time.

He was born in 1925. He never owned a computer. He had no use for mobile phones, and I’m not sure he even knew what Uber was. He didn’t much like change. He liked routines: lunch with his sister Dolly, on Monday, at the True Briton—where he ate scampi. Lunch with And and Julie, on Wednesday, at Woodies—where he ate scampi. And lunch with his best friend Derek, on Friday, at whichever pub in town sold the cheapest John Smith’s—as long as they also sold scampi. I think if it had been up to him the world would have frozen in place just after he married Mum in 1951—when women wore their hair long, and skirts, and short-haired men wore suits—but only if he could still eat scampi.

In WWII he was a radio operator in the merchant navy. He loved that. I think he visited every continent except Antarctica. He was very proud of his ship, and very proud to become her Third Officer. He loved telling stories of being a sailor… Like the time the allied fleet liberated Norway—for which every officer got a case of whiskey and a German pistol. And maybe they got other favours, too, though we never actually talked about it—except, one autumn afternoon, when he’d had a glass of whisky, he burst into a chorus of ‘Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women…’ (I nearly choked on my beer.) But he gave all that up to marry my mother.

In many ways Dad was a traditionalist. He believed in certain hierarchies: by gender, by age, by class. People, in his book, should know their place and behave accordingly. We should never get above ourselves. The one time he broke from that personal rule was his marriage to my mother. Dad was not religious, but my mother was Catholic. To get the Bishop’s permission to marry Mum, Dad had to promise to raise their children, raise us, in the Church. The Bishop was still dubious, but eventually he agreed: However, it was Lent, he said, so there could be no music. But Dad loved my mother, and my mother loved music, so for once he stepped out of his comfort zone and said: My wife will have music. And so Mum and Dad were married, in a full nuptial mass, with music, in Lent—which at the time was unheard of. Still is, actually. But somehow, nearly 70 years ago, Dad charmed the Bishop into bending the rules.

Dad could be very charming. Every woman who came away from a conversation with him said, What a lovely man! Part of his charm, of course, was those stories he used to tell of his days at sea: Stories told with wit, verve, and just a hint of wickedness. ‘This scar,’ he’d say, pointing to his chin, ‘is from a fight I got into with a Yank in port. He kicked me under the chin and knocked me cold.’ Or the time, for a bet, he drank an entire bottle of whiskey in one go, and ended up in hospital for two days.

Sometimes it was hard to reconcile the father of the stories with the father we knew, who liked everything to be orderly, and unchanging. The same. Even his clothes: the same shirts from the same tailor. The same ratty old cardigan for decades. And oh, the same most awful maroon swimming trunks—knit swimming trunks—on family holidays by the sea; I mean every holiday. I think he got those trunks before he got married. And he was still wearing them on holiday when I was a teenager. Why? It’s not as though he couldn’t afford a new pair. When I asked him, he looked at me, astonished, and said, ‘But Nicola, there’s nothing wrong them. Throwing them away would be a waste.’

That obsessive hatred of waste drove me crazy when I was growing up. I’d be reading in the lounge at dusk and he’d come in and say, ‘Don’t waste electricity,’ and flick the light off. But I’d give anything to have him walk in here, now, and tell me there was nothing wrong with those eggs—those six-month old eggs—in the fridge, or that those brown and shrivelled daffodils were perfectly good for another week. I will miss, especially, the chocolate oranges he sent me, every Christmas, wherever I was living, carefully boxed in old, cut-up birthdays cards, wrapped with reused brown paper, and tied with string saved from 1963.

I will miss so very many things. But so much of him is in me—in us, his children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great great grandchild—like his love of winning: at Scrabble, or draughts, or Beetle. Oh, he found such glee in winning; it was the only time he allowed himself to boast and chortle. Many of us, too, share his joy in a pint, or a glass of whiskey. Though, to be honest, he couldn’t tell Bell’s from 20-year Macallan—and didn’t believe anyone else could, either. And none of us sisters are any good at lying, because Dad never lied. Ever. And if he promised you something, he would do it.

My father was a man of his word. An honourable man. And I loved him.

Eric P Griffith, 1925 – 2019

My father died this morning. He was 93. We had the same hair, the same hands, the same temper. The same love of beer. The same competitiveness. In many other ways—most ways—we were quite different.

I’ll be going to the UK as soon as I can get a flight, which means that two of my upcoming appearances—at Elliott Bay Books with Sarah Schulman, and all the events at Orcas Island Book Festival—are cancelled. I’m hoping to get back in time for IONA in Vancouver but I’ll know more about that in a couple of days.

For now, here are two photos of me and Dad. One taken when I was nine or ten (a snapshot of a snapshot, so a little distorted), the other 7 years ago.

Black and white photo of father and daughter circa 1970. A white man with glasses and dark hair stands behind a girl with fair hair who is sitting on a tree stump. She is chewing a piece of hay.

Me and Dad circa 1970.

Colour photo of father and daughter circa 2012. They stand side by side. The man has white hair the woman's short hair is pale brown. They are the same height.

Me and Dad in 2012

I am not anyone’s metaphor

Today in A&U magazine there’s a new interview of me by Raymond Luczak:

More and more I’m seeing the same military metaphors used in the treatment of MS as those long in use for cancer and AIDS—fighting the disease, aggressive marshalling of forces, immune defense, etc.—but MS is not metaphorized to anything like the extent of HIV/AIDS. I’ve never seen MS characterized as a plague, for example, or invasion, probably because it’s not generally regarded as infectious. The metaphors of AIDS, it seems to me, are largely built on fear and disgust—with a vast moral dimension—whereas those for MS are based on pity. Both are distancing and Othering; both are dangerous.

I enjoyed this one. Thanks to Raymond for asking interesting questions.

Upcoming events

  • 3/27, 7:00 pm. Seattle, WAElliott Bay Book Company. In conversation with Sarah Schulman about her wonderful new novel, Maggie Terry. Here’s what I said about it:

    Set in 2017 Manhattan, Schulman’s latest is day-after noir: the party is over, the neon burnt out, and there’s nothing to drink but cold-pressed kale juice. While you were doing lines and knocking back shots, your wife took your child and left, your partner got himself killed, and you lost your badge. So now you have nothing but 12 steps. And while you weren’t looking, or at least not seeing, someone slowly strangled your community. It’s all gone: the gays have left, the bodegas are shut, and rat-infested tenements all replaced by condos overrun with man-buns.

    This is classic Schulman: crime fiction, yes, but the murder that matters is of the urban neighbourhood. Schulman flenses and dissects the human condition, weighs every organ—how we connect, what forms the beating heart of a community—then magically breathes life back into the husk and helps it rise, reborn. Schulman asks, Who are you when you have nothing left? What can you do when you can do nothing? You go on. You learn to see, or see clearly, to tell yourself the truth and accept that truth, and shoulder the responsibility. Maggie Terry is a light shining in the waste, offering hope: Where there are people, there is the possibility of connection, and together we can make it. You should read this.

  • 4/5 – 4/7. Orcas Island, WAOrcas Island Literary Festival. Schedule here. I’m doing three public events, all on Saturday 4/6:
    • Panel, “When bad things happen to good people.” Black Box, Orcas Center; 9:30 – 10:35 am.
    • Staged interview, with Jule Treneer; Black Box, Orcas Center; 2:00 – 2:30 pm.
    • Reading, Main Stage, Orcas Center, 7:15 – 9:15 pm.
  • 4/11- 4/13. Vancouver, BC, CanadaIONA: Early Medieval Studies on the Islands of the North Atlantic, transformative networks, skills, theories, and methods for the future of the field. Simon Fraser University. Schedule here.
    • My main event will be at 4:00 pm on Friday 12th April, when I give the plenary speech, “The personal is political—and scholarly, and creative.” In which I talk about embodiment, and how Hild deconstructs the historical discourse on gender, sexuality, and race.

 

Brandi Carlile made me cry

Black and white photo of teenage girl sitting on the grass and rolling a cigarette. She has long hair, tied back, gold-rimmed glasses, and there's a can of Long Life beer beside her.

Image description: Black and white photo of the author’s sister, Helena Griffith, sitting on the grass and rolling a cigarette. She is about 17, with long hair and glasses. A can of Long Life beer is by  her knee.


I was reading the paper this morning and was reminded that tonight Seattle musician, Brandi Carlile, is up for 6 Grammy Awards. I’ve only seen her perform once, at a private event nine years ago, but the memory of that night is strong and visceral so I thought I’d repost my thought from that event.

Enjoy. And, Brandi, if you’re reading this: Thank you for that, and good luck!


Last night I went to a private event for the Women’s Funding Alliance. We were feasted by Seattle celebrity chefs (including Becky Selengut—who created the insanely fabulous food for our 20th anniversary celebration three years ago). The food was superb. The wine flowed freely.

Brandi Carlile sat at the table next to ours. Later, when someone bid an astronomical sum (five figures) for a request, she played Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Just her and a piano, in touching distance. It’s a powerful piece—love, lust, longing, loss—and was a favourite of my little sister, Helena. Hearing it unexpectedly, live, by someone who really knew what she was doing, made me weep right there at the table.

There was a moment, as she figured out the range and first few chords (she normally does this song on the guitar), when I could have locked it all down and listened with a perfectly poised and pleasant expression. But then I remembered the point of the evening, which was to raise funds for women and girls who need help. And, oh, Helena had needed help. I had tried to give it, but she died anyway. So I let art do what it does, let it tear through the polite and careful curtain of my public persona, and wept.

At the end I was offered a tissue by an older woman who smiled and waved away my thanks. “When art moves you, what else can you do?” (Thanks, Carrie.)

But I’ll be giving to WFA and other organisations who help women and girls. And perhaps next time you see a woman or girl, homeless or hungry or otherwise in need, you will too.

Deep and crisp and even

It snowed. Again. The fence is buried, the van is buried, the road is buried. Everything is buried in 7-8″ of snow. Apparently there’s more on the way today. And tomorrow. And Monday. As for Tuesday, well, I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Van parked in a driveway next to a fence and surrounded by trees and shrubs. Everything is blanketed in snow. The van is just a vague hump of white and only the top of the fence shows. It's a colour photo but everything is eerie shades of blue, grey, and white.

A colour photo that looks monochrome. The front garden, driveway, and road with a neighbour's house. But all you can see is snow, no road surface at all. If you didn't know it was there you would say iti was a field.

The deck off the kitchen is very sheltered but now it's smothered in snow. Still, silent. All you can see of the planters are weird shapes. The table looks like a delicious deep frosted cake. Pine tree branches seem sprayed with foam and are hanging low and heavy with snow. Again, a colour photo but it looks monochrome.

Here’s what the local supermarket looked like Thursday—early Thursday (by Friday I’m guessing even the raddiccio was gone, and possibly those working checkout eaten):

empty shelves

The bread shelves and dairy cases were empty. The only meat you could get was bison. Today, of course, no one will be going anywhere, unless employees and intrepid customers have skis and/or snow shoes. There again, it is Seattle…

We, of course, are well-stocked, with a beef and marrowbone stew bubbling on the stove, the freezer stuffed and fridge groaning. We have many bottles of wine and two full cases of beer. We have books, and a fire, and each other. And it’s so deliciously quiet and still. In some ways, I’m quite looking forward to the next week—

—or two.

Here’s a map of Seattle’s snow-clearing plan:

Map of Seattle city neighbourhoods, criss-rossed by gold lines and green lines. Gold represents all road lanes clear of snow and ice. Green means one lane in each direction clear of snow and ice. There are two conspicious chunks of map with zero lines. One, in the upper right corner, is Broadview, where we live.

Bearing in mind that Seattle has very few snow ploughs this is an extremely optimistic map. But you see that red circle around the neighbourhood with zero snow-clearing plans? That’s where we live.

We are at the bottom of a very steep hill. With overnight temperatures predicted to be around 12˚F (-11.1˚C) it will turn into a sheet of ice. There’s no ski lift or funicular; I do not have skis or treads for my wheelchair. Even if there was no more snow, I suspect I’ll be marooned for a long time. And as the mother of all snowstorms is probably heading our way on Tuesday, I’m beginning—despite our supplies—to get just a little fretful.

This morning I read Clifford Mass’s weather blog. According to European climate models (which I tend to find more accurrate than most), it’s very possible Seattle will see 10-16″ of snow:

Graph of the European climate model showing 51 variations of weather predictions. But all show a startling change from light blue (4

Given that the forecasts for Friday were for about 4″ of snow, and here in our little pocket climate we had close to 7″, I’m feeling just a tad pessimistic. But, as with my political predictions, I’m very often wrong about weather. So at the same time—I really don’t have a problem with being paradoxical—I feel bizarrely cheerful and sure it will all work out just fine.

And, hey, wine, food, fire, books, and my sweetie… There are definitely worse things.