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Sue Burke
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21st-Jun-2017 09:15 am - Today is my birthday
Today is my birthday. Rather than wishing me well – enough people will do that already – wish someone in your life well and, perhaps, give them a little gift.

By way of celebration, here’s the Mindset List for my generation: I was born at the height of the Baby Boom. The Mindset List was first created in 1998 at Beloit College to reflect the experiences and world view of that year’s entering freshmen.

Students graduating in 2002 did not remember the Cold War. MTV had always existed for them, roller skates had always been in-line, and they couldn’t imagine hard contact lenses.

For this year’s freshmen, Google has always existed, The Lion King has always been playing on Broadway, and First Responders have always been heroes.

Us Boomers were the first generation to be explicitly marketed to. We survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. For us, spaceflight was thrilling rather than routine, and Ed Sullivan’s TV variety show was iconic. For me, Elizabeth II has always been Queen of the United Kingdom.

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, to drive with manual steering, and to make telephone calls by manually entering the numbers on a rotary dial. As a result, I’ve had to learn new skills, large and small, throughout my life.

When I was born, women could legally be discriminated against in the workplace and be paid less than men. Even married couples could be denied access to birth control. Women had limited access to sports and military service. African Americans could legally be required to sit in the back of the bus. They could be refused homes in any neighborhood that wished to keep them out, work in jobs where they weren’t welcome, attendance at some schools and universities, and use of Whites-only water fountains, among many other legal restrictions. Being gay was outright illegal.

For my generation, some of us haven’t always enjoyed basic freedoms. At least in a few ways, the world has improved over the years.

— Sue Burke

13th-Jun-2017 11:27 am - Con report: Wiscon 41
I wrote this report for the Alexiad fanzine, and just finished it in time for the ‘zine’s deadline. Here it is for your enjoyment:

Wiscon 41
May 26-29 in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Concourse Hotel

Friday, May 26
Chicago to Madison

The last time I attended a Wiscon was 2008, then 2003, and before that, the 1990s. It was the first sf convention I ever attended, and it’s remained one of my favorites for its ambitious programming and friendly atmosphere.

My husband and I left Chicago on Friday morning and, after a three-hour trip with moderate construction and traffic, we arrived a little after noon, checked in, and registered.

Friday afternoon’s programming included The Gathering: a ballroom filled with welcoming activities such as lock-picking lessons, a chance to test various gadgets, a nail polish swap, hair braiding, and a clothing swap. I brought two dresses for the clothing swap and took a blouse and a little black dress – and I began to say hello to old friends and meet new ones. I tested out a Kindle Voyage at the gadgets table since I’m thinking of upgrading, spun a Fidget Spinner and was unimpressed, and then left for a panel on “What Makes a Fun Story.”

Dinner was a kielbasa at a bar on State Street with my husband. In the dealer’s room, I bought a used book, The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt, and my husband was disappointed to see no tee-shirts for sale. A tour of the art show was delightful, and later in the weekend I returned for a small purchase. The opening ceremony largely dealt with logistics, announcements, and the crowning of The Tiptree Award winner, Anna-Marie McLemore. Among other honors, she received a gold and pearl tiara to wear during the weekend.

After that, the evening was largely beer, parties, more old and new friends – and I met and got all fan girl over Naomi Kritzer, author of “Cat Pictures, Please,” which won the 2016 Short Story Hugo. I loved that story. Now she knows I did.

Saturday, May 27
Concourse Hotel

Saturday was more friends and panels. I also wore a diadem I’d picked up the night before at the Carl Brandon Society Party. Tiaras were fashionable that weekend.

“The Future of Genetic Engineering” explained why we can’t get scorpion tails. (Damn!) I went to another panel on “Direct Payment and the Creator,” but it seemed to be going to focus on how unfairly money is distributed, which I already knew, so I went to “Stay in Your Lane.” It was billed as a discussion of power, privilege and oppression, but it really dealt more with people arguing on the internet, and despite a brief attempt to consider when listening might be more worthwhile than making noise, some panelists seemed to present themselves as awfully noisy.

I had lunch at the Tiptree Award bake sale (rhubarb is a vegetable, so a rhubarb bar counts as a salad, right?) and chatted with a librarian and a friend from my church in Chicago. The afternoon included my participation in the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. I read an essay about how Miguel de Cervantes remained poor despite writing one of the world’s most famous books. (He made about $3,700 in current value from Don Quixote). I attended some other panels, had dinner at a Chinese restaurant with friends, enjoyed the always-funny Tiptree Auction, and then it was party time.

At the bar, I discovered a Madison beer, Fantasy Factory, an IPA whose label features a fire-breathing unicorn being ridden by a ninja cat with a ray gun, all this against a background of a rainbow and a castle. It seemed perfect for a con. At the Haiku Earring Party, dozens of us wannabe poets were able to select earrings in exchange for writing a haiku. I chose a pair of lovely blue and black bead earrings and was assigned the title “the lotus after midnight.” After a little pondering, I wrote: black sky and bright stars / white flowers floating in a pond / these sleeping colors. Not my best work, but I tried.

Sunday, May 28
Concourse Hotel

More panels. The funniest one of my weekend was “How Lazy Writing Recreates Oppression”: for example, in J. K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America,” she seemed unaware that Native Americans have many tribes and nations, all with very different beliefs and customs. (In my experience, Europeans in general don’t know this.) Other examples showed even more lamentably how a lack of research led to unfortunate and easily ridiculed consequences.

Next was “Speculative Fiction in Translation” featuring Rachel S. Cordasco, Arrate Hidalgo, and me. We three had known each other for some time by internet, and I’d gotten to meet Arrate, who’s from Spain, in Chicago during the week before the convention, but this was the first chance we three had to meet in person. The audience seemed fascinated when Arrate and I talked about sticky details of translating, such as how to deal with puns, and they were delighted by the M&Ms and books that we gave away.

In the evening, right before the Guest of Honor speeches, we lined up (hundreds of us!) for the Dessert Salon. Each of us could take two desserts and enter the main ballroom. I got an excellent piece of Key Lime Pie and a slab of decadently dense chocolate espresso mousse. I also made new friends at the dining table.

Kelly Sue DeConnick, guest of honor and comic author, gave a speech touching on what had been suppressed in comics for many year. Amal El-Mohtar spoke about her sources of inspiration, including the children’s television show Steven Universe. The Tiptree Award winner, Anna-Marie McLemore, said she had been afraid to publish the winning novel, When the Moon Was Ours, a magical realism transgender romance. (It did well and received other awards.)

Then I went to a panel on “Science Fiction and the Role of Violence” where panel members expressed concerns about the sad fate of bystanders of superhero-supervillain battles. The rest of the night was parties, and at one we debated which member of the Three Stooges most closely resembled each president, and what narwhale tusks are for (sensing the water).

Monday, May 29
Madison to Chicago

On Monday, we checked out, attended a panel of “Canon vs. Fandom,” then went to The SignOut, where authors sign works for fans. I found Naomi Kritzer there. In my morning email, I’d learned that she’d been nominated for an Ignotus Award for Translated Short Story, Spain’s equivalent to a Hugo, for “Fotos de gatitos, por favor” (Cat Pictures, Please). I belong to the organization that presents the award, so I could tell her all about it. Total fangirl, as I said. I hope I didn’t annoy her.

The ride back to Chicago took less than three hours, and we encountered surprisingly light traffic. In addition to the Van Vogt book, I brought back two anthologies plucked from freebie tables: After The Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh and The Arbitrary Placement of Walls by Martha Soukup. I also bought issue 31 of Tales of the Unanticipated, an anthology published by SF Minnesota.

Next year’s Wiscon’s guests of honor will be Saladin Ahmed and Tananarive Due.

— Sue Burke

7th-Jun-2017 10:28 am - Different beauty, equal beauty
Let me see..
A Ming Dynasty vase and an ancient Greek urn share beauty but not aesthetics. The artisans of the different styles might have appreciated each other’s work if they had known about it – and yet they might have stuck to their own ways, perhaps because they saw no reason to change or because they lacked the material and equipment to produce anything else.

Likewise, languages have different rules for beautiful prose based both on cultural inheritance and on the possibilities and limits of each language within its grammar and vocabulary. I translate Spanish to English, and I often face the delightful task of transforming beautiful Spanish prose into beautiful English prose. To do that, I’ve had to learn to appreciate the standards of beauty for each language, which share little in common due to different historical trajectories.

Spanish emerged from a local dialect of Latin. King Alfonso X the Wise, who reigned from 1252 to 1284, made Spanish (Castilian, to be precise) the official language of his realm. To cement that decree, he assembled scholars in Toledo to translate literature from other languages into Spanish and to create new books, and he himself wrote a few. He knew that a language must have literature.

Fine writing style in Spanish still echoes its scholarly roots: a bit formal and elaborated. Above all, good style rejects repetition. Vocabulary and syntax should be richly varied. Spanish grammar permits long, ornate sentences, because the verbs are fully conjugated and the nouns and adjectives are gendered, so subordinate clauses can easily be looped together like tatted lace.

English has suffered a more checkered history. After the Norman invasion in 1066, Norman French became the dominant language in Britain, and English was shattered into regional dialects. As modern English eventually began to emerge, it was shaped by two literary landmarks: Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

The Bard of Avon began writing plays in about 1592, adding lively new words and expressions we still use today. We all speak “the language of Shakespeare” – which is how Spaniards often refer to English (to avoid repeating the word English).

But even more importantly for the development of English, the King James Bible was published in 1611, and its constant use as the single major work of literature readily available to the ordinary person made it the standard and model for their language. Its translators had produced direct, unornamented prose meant for ordinary people, not scholars, and they stuck close to the syntax of the original languages, notably Hebrew in the Old Testament.

Many of those Bible verses were poetry, and Hebrew poetry does not rhyme; instead, it uses parallel, balanced structures of phrases or ideas, and repetition of words or rhythms. The second half of a parallel may paraphrase the first half, it may give a consequence, it may contradict the first half, or it may add stronger and stronger clauses or sentences that lead to an apex. Rhythm can make the prose musical.

Because of that, repetition strikes the English-language ear as beautiful. The two most famous speeches of the 20th century, “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr., and “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” by Winston Churchill, demonstrate the power and melody of repetition.

Beautiful Spanish should be ornate and enriched, avoiding repetition. Beautiful English should be direct and plain, seeking balanced repetition of words and structures.

With that in mind, I translated the novel Prodigios (Prodigies) by Angélica Gorodischer for Small Beer Press. Hers was a dense, very Spanish prose, without a doubt beautiful. I had to bring it into English. Here is an example from Chapter 15:

“...en algunas casas se cerraron púdicas las cortinas no fuera que ese sol desmesurado y lejos de lugar y medida, como despanzurrando sobre los parquets y los tapices, fuera a desteñir los tapizados y peor, a dar que de los lóbulos de las orejas a las niñas vigiladas y obedientes que cambiaban, también en esa época como el sol...”

“...in some houses the curtains were chastely closed because this sun, excessive, out of place and propriety, might burst on parquet floors and tapestries, might fade the fabric, and worse, might strike the skin on forearms and behind earlobes of protected and obedient girls, inciting their thoughts, girls who also transformed in that season like the sun...”

With a little repetition, I sought to set new words to the original tune and make them sing as sweetly. The changes were slight, almost automatic, guided by some knowledge of how to make the transformation, and with it, I hope I did the original words justice.

There were alternatives, of course. One problem – or possibility, depending on how you look at it – involves the translation of the word fuera, which is the past tense third person singular subjunctive form of “to be.” Spanish subjunctive can be translated in many ways, often with difficulty because the use of subjunctive in English is much more limited than in Spanish. There are various ways to render it, and each requires other changes in the syntax. One possible way, and a more literal translation, is:

“…in some houses the chaste curtains were closed to prevent this sun, excessive and out of place and propriety, as it was bursting on parquets and tapestries, from fading fabric and worse, inciting thoughts as it was striking skin on the forearms and behind the earlobes of the protected and obedient girls who also changed in this season like the sun.”

Although this is perfectly acceptable, to my ear it sounds ordinary, unlike the original prose, which sounds extraordinary. I hear too many present participles, and while repetition of grammatical forms is good, these do not all fulfill the exact same grammatical role: they’re not parallel.

Instead, in my final version, I tried to find a way to unite as many verbs as I could under the modal might. It expresses weak probability, which at times can convey the sense imparted by Spanish subjunctive. I got might burst, might fade, might strike, and deliberately chose to repeat might to make sure the reader understood the relationship between the verbs.

The excerpt also focuses on the girls of the households, who must be kept chaste and unchanged. So rather than say who toward the end of the sentence, I found a way to repeat girls and thus place a bit more emphasis on them.

The rest, with a little tweaking, fell into place, and to me it sounds better – although matters of style are always open to debate, which is good. Dialogue strengthens literature, and literature strengthens language.


Also posted at The Tiff, Asymptote magazine’s blog, and at my professinal website.

— Sue Burke

31st-May-2017 11:57 am - Why writers sometimes fail
Let me see..
I was asked by an unhappy movie producer why a writer could turn in a fine script, but the next one by the same writer would be bad. Here’s my answer:

We writers ask ourselves the same thing. Why is one piece of writing successful, and the next one isn’t? We worked on it the same way, just as hard, with the same excitement and love, and no one liked it. Why?

Well, among other reasons, unless we’re rewriting the same thing over and over, or following a formula as if creative works were McDonald’s hamburgers, every story is an experiment. Sometimes experiments fail.

"You write a hit the same way you write a flop," said Alan Jay Lerner of the writing team Lerner and Loewe. Lerner won three Oscars, among many other awards, and everyone in the world has heard his hits, which include My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Gigi. He also wrote 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with none other than Leonard Bernstein as a collaborator, and it’s perhaps the worst flop in the history of Broadway.

What went wrong? Nothing. The creative process went as normal. There are no guarantees. Martin Amis called bestsellers a “ridiculous accident”.

This is why writers drink. We can, perhaps, accept the inevitability of random failure, but those around us don’t always understand.

— Sue Burke

24th-May-2017 09:15 am - How to find me at Wiscon
Let me see..
I’ll be on two panels and one reading this weekend at Wiscon 41, a feminist-focused SF convention:

Saturday, May 27, 1 to 2:15 p.m., Conference 4, Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. Eight members (including me) of Broad Universe, an organization for women writers and editors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, will read brief works. I’ll read an essay about how much money Miguel de Cervantes earned for one of the greatest novels of all time, Don Quixote de la Mancha. You’ll be horrified by how little.

Saturday, May 27, 4 to 5:15 p.m., Conference 5, Women of Atheism. Four of us will speak on not believing in the existence of deities and how that affects our perspectives and lived experiences. Come and talk about what you believe and don’t believe.

Sunday, May 28, 1 to 2:15 p.m., University C, Speculative Fiction in Translation. Rachel S. Cordasco, Arrate Hidalgo, and I will talk about who gets translated, why, and what you might enjoy reading. If you come, you’ll receive a reading list, some M&Ms, and even a free book (supplies are limited).

— Sue Burke

12th-May-2017 03:04 pm - Tor has announced my novel!

I love the cover art. Read all about it here:

— Sue Burke

9th-May-2017 09:48 am - “Amadis of Gaul” is finished!
Back in the Middle Ages, tales about King Arthur reached Europe from Wales, and soon everyone was telling them – and they also told spinoff stories. In Spain, one spinoff dealt with Amadis of Gaul, a knight who lived (supposedly) after “the passion of our lord Jesus Christ” but before King Arthur. In his day, Amadis was the greatest knight in the world.

That story came down to us in the form of a fat novel called Amadis of Gaul. I just finished translating it from medieval Spanish into English as a blog. The final post went up today. You can read it here.

Amadis of Gaul became Europe’s first best-seller and created a genre that persists to this day in such works as Game of Thrones.

I began translating it eight and a half years ago, posting a chapter or partial chapter weekly, and I had fun. The story offers adventure, love, and magic. It’s also very medieval, with a huge cast of characters and intertwining stories. While women had a set place in society, that place might be commanding a realm or dispensing sorcery. There’s humor, but at times laughing at the suffering of others or telling jokes whose punch line we’ve forgotten. And there’s romance and sex. Amadis was born out of formal wedlock, as was his son.

The story teaches a lot about a society long ago and far away, both different and similar to our own in unexpected ways. Knights sometimes felt troubled by the violence of their duties, and the burdens of office weighed heavily on those who directed and defended realms: it has always been known that governing is complicated.

The blog will remain up for all to read and savor. I’m now working on getting the four-book novel out in paper and ebook format.

For years, I’ve spent my Fridays working on Amadis of Gaul as a seemingly never-ending challenge. I’m glad I did, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labor.

— Sue Burke

3rd-May-2017 10:01 am - Don’t just say no
I’m a writer, and after you write a story, you send it to publishers. Often they send it back, saying no. Rejection remains one of the most disappointing aspects of writing life, an ongoing source of sadness and even despair.

Rejections and fun clearly don’t mix – except this one time.

I wrote a horror story about vampires and started sending it out. The story made the second cut in an anthology, but not the final one. Oh, well. I sent it out again right away and got a response of “close, very close” from the editor. Not bad!

Then … the very next magazine rejected it with a note saying it was “cruel and evil.” Evil? A vampire horror story? Isn’t that the point? I laughed about it with my writer friends, and for a while I was known as “evil Sue Burke.”

The next magazine rejected it with (this was by snailmail) a preprinted note saying: “We CELEBRATE your achievement!” Although the editors couldn’t take the story, the note said, they wanted me to know how proud they were of me for having written it and taken part in the furtherance of literature. Or something like that. I think they meant it because they dropped a sprinkle of confetti into the envelope – really cool confetti. I used it to decorate my desk lamp.

I kept sending the story out, got rejections both bland and encouraging, and on the 21st try, I found a magazine that loved it and took it. A few years later the story was even reprinted in an anthology. All’s well that ends well.

I learned four things from this adventure:

1. Confetti should accompany all rejections. Or, now that we send most manuscripts out via internet, a picture of a cute kitten. How hard would that be?

2. Rejections are about the story, not about the writer, which is too bad because I really enjoyed being evil.

3. As we all know, rejections are a necessary step toward publication. We can even make a game out of them. I wish I could remember who I learned this from so I could give her credit: Try to see if you can achieve a certain number of rejections in a single day. She suggested five, so I made that my goal. The most I’ve ever gotten is three.

4. I need more rejections if I’m going to win the rejection game, which means I have to get more submissions out there – so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go write something. As a parting gift, here’s a picture of a cute kitten. Celebrate your next rejection with it. We all deserve a little fun.

Also posted at the Red Sofa Literary blog.

— Sue Burke

26th-Apr-2017 10:28 am - Spanish has five genders, almost six
Escudo de España
April 23 was El día del idioma, the day to celebrate the Spanish language (because Miguel de Cervantes was interred on that date in 1616). If you forgot to celebrate, here’s another chance.

If you studied Spanish, the first thing you learned is that nouns have gender. “The moon” is la luna (feminine) and “the sun” is el sol (masculine). Some words change their ending to accomodate gender: “the boy” is el niño and “the girl” is la niña. There’s not always a lot of logic behind this – why is “speed” feminine, la rápidez, and “waste” mascuine, el derroche? – so you simply have to memorize the gender.

But wait! There’s (always) more to learn.

Some nouns are epicene. That means they have the same article (el or la) and the same word for both sexes. For example, “the goat” is la cabra. If you want to specify the sex, you say la cabra macho, “the male goat,” or la cabra hembra, “the female goat.” A number of animals are epicene, such as “the squirrel,” la ardilla, and “the vulture,” el buitre. There’s no logic, so rote memorization is your only recourse.

Some nouns are gender common. That means the word stays the same, but the article changes to show if the person being referred to is male or female. Quite a few words fall into this category. “The artist” is la artista or el artista, “the soldier” is la soldado or el soldado, and “the martyr” is la mártir or el mártir. When you memorize the word, you have to memorize how to use it.

A smaller list of words are gender ambiguous. “The sea” can be masculine or feminine, la mar or el mar, as can “the sugar,” la azúcar or el azúcar. If you have any free brain cells left, memorize these details, too.

(Some words change their meaning completely depending on whether they are feminine or masculine. El cometa is “the comet” and la cometa is “the kite.” Memorize these if your brain hasn’t exploded yet.)

Finally, Spanish has no neutral nouns, but it has some neutral pronouns: esto, eso, aquello, ello, lo. But now we’re getting into grammar, and I’m not going there today. Mercifully.

— Sue Burke

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