Bucket of eels

It’s been an interesting and difficult year so far. Words have occasionally felt irrelevant. But here’s an attempt to explain a little of what’s going on.

Kelley took full-time employment for the first time in 19 years and it’s meant a huge change to our everyday lives.

Way too many people I love have died. A year ago, I had four aunts and a father. As of yesterday, I have one aunt; I am perilously close to being the oldest generation of my family. This feels surreal. There again, grief itself is surreal. Each hit—and that’s how so many griefs in a row feel: like being hit on a bruise, over and over—renders the world a little less solid, a little less real. Yet one of my sharpest griefs was not for a relative but for a good friend, Vonda McIntyre. When my father died I had to make the agonising decision to leave for his funeral when I knew Vonda only had a few days left (and in fact she died on April 1). I will write about what Vonda means to me another time; right now, I can’t.

This time last year I wrote about my wheelchair-accessible van, and my plans to learn to drive it with hand controls. Life got in the way of focusing on that until earlier this year. And it turned out that my driving test was 36 hours after my father died—and, for Reasons, in a small Western Washington town called North Bend. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the mind-wrenching grief of parental loss, but for the first two or three days it feels like someone sticks a blender in your brain and blitzes. For a while, I can’t make sense of the simplest things, and I don’t remember what people say from one moment to the next. That’s how I was when I was sitting in the driver’s seat for my test. The examiner spoke, and obviously I made some sort of response, but it felt like sitting in a whirling storm of static. I think if the examiner had given me a cognitive test before I turned the engine on she would have refused to get in the car with me, and fled.

However, I did the test, and did the worst job of driving I think I’ve ever done in that van; I didn’t know right from left. When I turned the engine off and waited for her to finish totting up my mistakes, I knew I’d failed. So I was not just surprised but shocked when she told me I’d passed. (I came *this* close to saying, You have got to be fucking kidding me.)1 But I had just enough sense to not do that, and instead plucked the signed form from her hands, thanked her, and drove back to Seattle (well, okay, Kelley drove us back to Seattle; at that point I was toast). In Seattle, we had a celebratory beer, packed, then got on a plane for the UK.

So I might be an orphan but at least I’m now a fully qualified driving orphan.2

Within a week, the blender in my brain has turned it into a thick slurry—and a week or two after that, it pours that slurry into a bucket of thrashing eels. (Ha! If I though I couldn’t think before…)

We got back from the kind of transatlantic trip no one should ever have to make,3 had time to do a quick load of laundry, then turned around and head for Vancouver. We were inVancouver for five days at an academic conference where I was giving a plenary speech. I loved it—Vancouver, the conference, the people, giving the speech— but it was hard. There was only one person there I’d met before. And the series of seminars I attended started at 8:30 three morning in a row (you try being smart at 8:30 when you’re jet-lagged and your slurry brain is in a bucket of eels). Plus, for two days, the hotel bar was closed. (But it was Gastown, so there were plenty of options.)

When I got back from Vancouver, I’d planned to get right back into writing Menewood but, yeah, slurry brain, and those eels. Plus some health stuff I’ve got going on. (Weird blood pressure spikes and crashes; lots of testing; lots of Huh, well that’s odd. I wonder if it’s this. Or, Hmm, how about this. No? Okay, then we’ll investigate this…) Oh, and also the delicious kind of migraine called basilar migraine that makes me go blind and turns words to rubbish. (The blindness and ataxia is only temporary, usually less than hour for me, but it’s a terrifyingly long time to be absolutely blind and unable to communicate.) But I’m gradually picking it back up, re-immersing myself in seventh-century Britain.

My plan is for Menewood to be published in time for the next IONA in London in November 2021. With luck, there may also be another couple of books available at the same time—but I won’t say more about those until/unless they come to fruition.

But, hey, the sun is shining, and now it’s time to replant annuals in our deck pots (and see if I can revive the jasmine that more or less died of neglect the last six weeks). As/when I do, I’ll post pics. Meanwhile, enjoy your spring-becoming-summer.

1 The funny thing is, the examiner added up the points wrong. I actually passed with 2 more points than she thought. So, yay me?

2The thought that you can drive so badly and still qualify to drive around on city streets with other people makes me fret about every other driver in charge of a two-ton death machine.

3Grief + MS + 26 hrs travel time each way = hell; not to mention having to go through security twice on the way back, mutter mutter. Then add in funeral directors, lawyers, flat-clearing, hospital visits—my sister is ill, but that’s a whole other story—and meeting cousins and aunts I hadn’t seen for years; not to mention writing and giving my father’s eulogy when all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and check the fuck out…

The women of my writing motherline

Today in Electric Literature I talk about five women who shaped my writing. They are part of my writing motherline. The rules were that I had to choose just 5; I could just as easily have chosen 25.

Too few writers, in any form or genre, talk about the women who shaped them. This distorts the history and shape of real influence. As part of the piece I say,

If you want to understand the shape of 21st-century science fiction, read Charnas, and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978). They are the mothers of us all.

And I believe this is true. I believe that without Charnas and McIntyre and Russ and Tiptree, today’s SF would look very different (I doubt cyberpunk would have been born, for example). But too few of us acknowledge our debt. At some point soon I’ll talk more about that. But for now, go read Electric Lit’s Read More Women series.

5 Great Books by Women, Recommended by Nicola Griffith

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.