Subconscious Biases in Author Naming Conventions

“Hello. My name is ___.”

As someone who’s been copyediting professionally for two decades, I’ve constantly seen subconscious race and class biases seep into writing via an author’s naming conventions. So, let’s talk about names in both fiction and nonfiction writing and how those express both biases and microaggressions, because, yes, this is a thing.

Suppose you’re writing biographies of mathematicians Katherine Coleman Johnson (no relation) and John Forbes Nash, Jr. Once the antecedents are stated, how do you refer to them? As Johnson and Nash? Katherine and John? Katie and Junior? I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve copyedited who would reflexively use the last name for any white male and the first name or even a nickname for any female or POC. Even if the two were coworkers with the same job title. Often in the same paragraph or even sentence.

These slips also show up to expose an author’s class biases–the CEO is Mr. Bigg or just “Bigg” while the perceived low-status or low-paid worker is just “Joe, the gardener” or “Suzie, the retail associate.” In nonfiction reporting, it’s sloppy; in fiction, it’s also a sign you aren’t fully developing your characters; but in both cases it’s telling your readers more about YOU than you may have realized.

A friend of mine used to quip, “There are two kinds of people: those with their name on their door, and those with their name on their shirt.” Disagree with the justice of this or not, we have to recognize these biases are reinforced daily each time we shop (shirt) or visit our banker (door). Make sure this worldview isn’t creeping into your writing unless it’s intentional. (And while we’re at it, if you run a business where people have to wear nametags, why not use last names? It’s a small thing, but it matters in the way people are perceived and treated by customers.)

Now, how are these unconscious biases also microaggressions? Simple: imagine being consistently addressed by your first name or a diminutive of your first name while a peer or even supervisor is consistently addressed by their last name. It’s a clear expression of perceived value and worth tied to perceived status. What would your opinion be of the person doing that to you? Do you want people to view you that way? Do you want people to see your art through that lens? Probably not.

We like to pretend otherwise, but the truth is we live in a very race- and class-conscious society, one in which racial and class biases frequently overlap and in which subtle contempt for either can be expressed in similar ways. Names are one of those ways. If you’re trying to have characters in a story express conscious or unconscious class/race bias, then their use of names is a great way to do it without other exposition. However, if your omniscient narrator voice is doing it, then you need to check yourself.

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Hugelkultur: 1 month mark

A month ago today, I put several piles of scrap wood to work by consolidating them into a single pile topped with sod, a thing known as a “hügelkultur” or “hill garden.” There are number of advantages to these; specifically, once the logs beneath the starter sod starts to rot, they provide both nutrients and moisture for gardening without water or fertilizer for up to 20 years. Cool, huh?

The previous post is about the process. Here’s what it looks like today, one month on:

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Lots of grass, plenty of weeds, a few flowers, and the beginnings of a spreading root system to hold it together.

Large numbers of bumble bees fly around the structure, but I haven’t seen evidence yet that they or other large bees are nesting there, though it appears a small type of carpenter bee is. If you look in the lower left, you’ll see a chipmunk hole (there are several). The ants moved in almost immediately. As the grass got going, the spiders are what really took off–they have colonized the entire mound and, with the grass raised to eye level, it’s easy to spot them. Of course, since there are an estimated 2 and a 1/2 MILLION spiders per acre of grassland, that’s no surprise–I’m just better able to see them now.

What I like about the hügelkultur right now is that, even if it’s not ready for agriculture, it’s a potential refugium where insects–especially bees–and arachnids can flourish and repopulate the yard after mowings.

Stay tuned for periodic updates. Not expecting to be able to plant crops on it for at least two summers, but who knows?

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Hugelkultur: Raised beds for beets & bees

Some hours ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no email in my inbox and nothing particular to interest me at work, I thought I would dig about a little and see the turfy part of the world…the idea being to spend the cooler hours of the day seeing if I couldn’t install a self-sustaining raised-bed wood garden, sometimes known as a hugelkutur. A hugelkultur is basically a stack of wood–ideally six feet high–with sloping sides and upside-down turf laid on top of the displaced soil. The wood stacked under the soil/turf acts as a compost to provide both nutrients and water to whatever you decide to plant there as the layer of soil on top gradually expands/deepens through natural biotic breakdown.

If you’ve ever walked in an old growth forest and seen a surprisingly straight row of young trees growing out of the rotting remains of a fallen giant, you get the idea. A hugelkultur just requires human hands instead of a stiff breeze to get it started. Our local utility company came through about a month ago and pruned the trees back from the overhead wires, leaving piles of logs that few of the neighbors have dealt with yet, which gave me a ready supply of logs, mostly pine, which nobody wants for their stoves. Not surprisingly, no one said no when I asked if I could take the logs off their hands.

So, I’d never done this before, and if I did it again, I’d do a few things differently, but all-in-all, I’d rate my effort a solid 4 out of 10, and I suspect the resulting structure will be providing habitat for bees within two days and for vegetables or perhaps flowers within two years. The main benefit of a hugelkultur is the same as composting your food waste, grass clippings, and leaves: why pay to have potential nutrients hauled out of your yard and then pay again to add nutrients to your yard artificially–polluting groundwater and the air in the process. By stopping such irrational behavior, we can all contribute to cutting down on nonpoint source pollution, and maybe save a few bucks.

In my case, we also have in large population of skunks where I live, and the last two years the resident bees that pollinate my neighbor’s garden (my current source of peppers & garlic) have been dug out of the ground and eaten in the night, we suspect by these same stinkers. Today’s big pile of dirt-covered logs was already attracting several species of bees by the time I finished building it, so hopefully they will move in and get to work on the vegetables next door. (Safety tip: a hugelkultur is going to attract insects, rodents, snakes, and who knows what all–build it as far from the house as you would any compost project.)

So, here’s the quick history of the construction:

20180514_100310I have a natural swale in my yard where sedges choke out the grass, so it seemed the best spot to use, to accelerate rotting of the wood and for adding maximum moisture to the soil. It’s said if you build it big enough (and properly), a hugelkultur (OK, it’s German for “hill garden”) can go six months without watering, which is nearly as long as New England’s growing season.

Next, dig:

20180514_113417I dug down roughly six to eight inches, then raked it level. Easy peasy. I put the longest logs alongside the pit to guide my digging to size.

Ideally sod is supposed to be cut back and rolled up, then unrolled upside-down on the top of the finished hill, the idea being the roots will hold it and the dirt under it in place. In reality, the sod in my yard and the underlying organic layer is pretty thin and poorly developed. This is the case throughout New England due to 400 years of cultivation–and particularly the post “Green Revolution” years when fertilizer was replaced the work of soil conservation–as well as 100,000 years of glaciation. (Nantucket? Please send New Hampshire’s soil back. Canada? We have your boulders (glacial erratics)–please pick them up at your convenience.)

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(<– More evidence of past turbation in my yard: a transfer print.

Somebody call Liz J. Abel ASAP for the instant ID.)

 

After digging, stack. I started stacking with the big stuff. 20180514_114612

After putting in the big stuff–the idea being that the larger logs will hold in the smaller and allow for stacking into a rough pyramid, I got some yard debris–small sticks, rotting leaves–and tried to “caulk” the logs so after the soil is thrown on top, it won’t all just wash into the interior during the first good rain shower.

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In retrospect, it would have been a better idea to both caulk with twigs and also to throw in a layer of dirt between every layer of wood, like the mayonnaise between each layer of vegies in a Russian bride salad, to ensure some soil with its starter biotics was contained throughout the layer. I did not do that, but would do that if I built another one of these things.

The wood I gathered had mostly been lying around for less than a month, so it hadn’t started to decay much. 20180514_135820

However, I did find a pile of logs which were already considerably decayed, and was happy to shunt them into place throughout the structure. Check out the fungus.

<– Fungus is your friend.

The more rotten the wood, the quicker the breakdown of nutrients will happen.

 

 

After that, it was just a matter of piling on logs/caulking/shunting until I got to a height that seemed to work. Then, throw the dirt back on and try to lay the crumbling pieces of sod upside-down on the whole thing for the resulting structure:

20180514_151557.jpgSo, what do I have here, really? A 7×4-foot square pile of  logs, roughly 3 1/2-feet high, covered with dirt to (hopefully) speed their transition into “seed logs” to provide nutrients for growing…something.

The aesthetic, classical pyramid shape featured in the illustrations on the first link above did not happen–such is the fate of eyeballing it. Stating the obvious, a 7×4-foot base does not result in a 6-foot high pyramid on which soil is going to stick (Sorry, Snefru, ain’t happening), and given the poor state of my thin-rooted sod, to build a structure that would have kept the soil from washing down the sides would have required a wider base than I was willing to turn over–got to leave room for badminton, after all.

Not a bad way to spend the morning, and if you’re not in a hurry for results, not a bad way to usefully dispose of the logs Unitil Corporation of New England leaves strewn up and down the streets in the wake of its once-a-decade pruning.

I suspect what I have probably constructed is a giant bee hive, which is fine because the neighborhood needs one. The skunks may dig under it, but the tightly-caulked logs should likely prove too much for them, not matter how many tasty grubs they can smell inside. Will the inevitable chipmunks, mice, and shrews bother the bees? Time will tell. Will this ever be a garden? Check this spot for infrequent and irregular updates.

Peace.

 

 

 

 

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Looking forward with Renewed Authority

24 Sept 2017 should be remembered as a special day. The day a struggling country regained the moral authority to claim its true identity.

I forget which writer said [paraphrasing] that “An American man is too often a failed boy.”  That has never been truer than since we collectively chose (apparently with hostile foreign assistance) as our “leader,” a man who is a child’s version of an adult, the sort of man-child Robert Louis Stevenson was apparently thinking of when he wrote “Looking Forward”:

When I am grown to man’s estate

I shall be very proud and great,

And tell the other girls and boys

Not to meddle with my toys.

The boy’s concept of a man is toxic–the simple ability to boss others around, without understanding the imperative to control oneself, let alone share. But that is our smoke and mirrors leader, our C-list television star playing a role as he has aped through a series of roles his whole life: the child’s idea of an adult, the weak-willed man’s idea of resolution, the follower’s idea of a leader, the poor man’s idea of a rich guy (golden toilets, seriously?), the artless man’s concept of taste, the dumb person’s impersonation of a smart one, the friendless man’s idea of a buddy…the list goes on.

One consequence of following a hollow man has been the hollowing out of the nation he leads, the perversion and parody of our principles, and the abandonment of aspirations to do good and be better–defining ideals even when we could not pretend they were our strongest characteristics.

But 24 September 2017 was a turning point, the point when a group of men playing a child’s game showed the child playing president what leadership looks like. After the president’s unhinged speech in Alabama denigrating athletes (African-Americans in particular) who use their spot in the public eye to raise awareness of civil rights issues, countless NFL players, coaches, and even owners came out in support of the First Amendment rights of their teammates. #TakeTheKnee or #TakeAKnee became the trending topic, a fitting symbol that shows not just a way of peacefully demonstrating but a way of expressing our shared humility, “It’s not about me; it’s about US.”

The president who once failed to undermine the NFL with his own counter-league, has instead seen his fraying moral authority completely shredded by the silent act of men kneeling, linking arms, or standing side-by-side with those who do, in defense of principles the self-absorbed ranter-in-chief–the child playing with toy versions of adult possessions and concepts–is incapable of understanding.

Sensing his defeat, the president this morning tried to pivot to bring in support from another source, NASCAR, but was quickly shot down as one of its top drivers issued a quick rebuke on Twitter letting the president know he was on his own.

A bully or a dictator or an abusive spouse or domineering boss wins by isolating their victim, little by little, first with promises then with threats then with disdainful reminders of how compromised they have already become…”Who would want you now that I’ve had my way with you?” America has been the one in that role since November, mocked abroad and self-loathing at home; but on Sunday we saw the total, universal humiliation of fat man in the wife-beater tee, and he saw it, too, and so did his remaining supporters.

Welcome home, America. You’re beautiful, and you deserve a leader who knows it.

That leader is you.

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Derek Walcott Has Died, His Voice Never Will

St. Lucian poet and citizen of the world Derek Walcott has passed. If you have never experienced the joy and magnitude of the Caribbean-born poet, one word that describes him is audacious; how else to describe someone who dared what others could not even imagine? His 1990 novel-in-verse, Omeros, seamlessly combines the countless cultures, tongues, myths, and peoples of his native island and of the lands of all the forbearers into the proverbial whole that exceeds the sum of its parts, and seems to pick up not so much where Homer left off, but in harmony with The First Poet. Yes, Walcott really was that good.

Reading him, he was someone I had always hoped to meet in the flesh, if only to thank him for so many wonderful hours wandering the towers of his castles of pure language. His poetry is so deeply personal that anyone reading it would miss its writer like an old friend, but, of course, never feel without him.

-Z.

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New tale of NH living: Cumbre Vieja

Had a flash fiction piece called Cumbre Vieja published on Shotgun Honey this morning. At 700 words, it’s a quick read with no filler. Think New England noir meets disaster flic.

The title, “Cumbre Vieja,” is after a real place, an island in the Canaries that gives some geologists the tremors…

Enjoy!

-Z.

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Drawer Novels

Just got back from a weekend writers’ conference–the New England Crime Bake. This is an intentionally small conference held with the purpose of community building, not to mention making the established authors who attend accessible to us would-be authors. It was a fanboy’s dream walking the halls for two days among the extremely generous people whose faces peer out from my bookshelf, let alone getting to speak with them. I am hooked on NECB. Reciting my great-great-grandfather’s bawdy railroad-worker poems to a laughing William Kent Krueger was not at all what I’d expected to occur, but definitely made it time well spent! See you all next year.

One thing evident from the weekend is that very few authors break into print with their first novel. Or their second. Or more. Let alone innumerable rewrites. As one panelist put it, “After twenty years in the trenches, I was an overnight success!” Indeed. So, many authors have what are called “drawer novels,” efforts they worked on for years before reaching the end of their conversation with those characters and events, which were finally abandoned like valued friendships or love affairs you just couldn’t make work.

Is there no hope for a reunion with these old friends and lovers? Perhaps there is.

A writer I talked with over the weekend (I didn’t ask permission to name her, so I won’t without asking) suggested a “drawer novel swap”: two writers exchanging their drawer novels with each other. The hope would be that a fresh set of eyes would spot the structural or character defects and deficiencies that are invisible to the creator. The two writers could “fix” each others drawer novels, and, if the fix really works, share joint authorship on both efforts. This is essentially like getting a developmental editor or script doctor, but one who would actually do the work, not just give you a summary on how to do it. In exchange, you’d do it for them. I found it an intriguing idea, and perhaps a way for John Pacheco, Kurt Rhymes, Gayle Motley, and a few other “old friends” with whom I’ve lost touch to someday engage the wider world.

 

 

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