Marissa's Sense of Smilla

4 February 2002

Can anyone tell me how to write a check for a negative amount of money? AT&T sent me a bill for a negative amount of money, so, you know, the reasonable thing seems to be to write a check for said negative amount. Or they could send me a stinkin' check, but does anyone want to bet on the odds of that? And why would they send it separately, anyway? Why not just enclose it?

I am so glad we don't use these people any more.

I am also quite entranced with Smilla's Sense of Snow. I'm going to look for Høeg's other books at the library on my next trip, and they're worth transferring to my bookstore list if I don't find them there. In some ways, this is not a good book for me to read: it's making me homesick for snow. In fact, a lot of the first part of this book is about homesickness, about being displaced, about how some people get places into their bones and what it's like when they live somewhere that isn't part of them like that. But even though Smilla says that she had thought that Isaiah, the little boy, was young enough to assimilate Denmark into him as she never did, you can tell that Copenhagen is shaping her, too, even as she stays apart from it.

I love this book. I'd have finished it yesterday if I didn't also love my own book and want to work on it.

I think one of the stereotypical pieces of advice that writers get is that plot and character are inextricably interwoven. And I think that's true. It's just that setting isn't something separate from them. That's fairly easy to see in science fiction or in fantasy: characters are at least partially dictated by the world they live in, and even by the specific setting within the world. Living in an early space station is not the same thing as living in an apartment building in Manhattan, and many authors are pretty good at dealing with the difference. But it's true outside spec fic, too, and that means it's true in less obvious ways in spec fic. We're good at it shaping characters with time, and we're fairly good at shaping characters with nationality or ethnic origin. But that's not the same thing as place, and the places a character lives, works, has lived, those are all going to affect the character. And they'll also affect the plot. The obvious ones, again, are there, but that doesn't mean the subtle ones don't show up, too. The obvious ones are things like not having an ambulance show up in five minutes if a character is injured in rural Montana or downtown San Francisco. But there are also plots that just don't work anywhere but where they are. I'm delighted to have come upon Høeg in part because of his sense of the interrelation of these things.

I watched the movie of "Smilla's Sense of Snow" back when we lived in Concord, so over a year ago. One of the things that's now jumping out at me is that they cast Julia Ormond as Smilla. It bothers me. Smilla is Greenlandic. It is very, very important to the plot that she is Greenlandic, and people treat her differently because of it. Greelanders are a visible ethnic minority in Denmark: people see them on the street and know right away that they are not ethnic Danes. And, in fact, if you, Joe or Jane Average Reader, were presented with an ethnic Dane and a Greenlander and asked which one was Danish, I believe you'd figure it out with ease. Greeenlanders are Inuit. Not particularly European-looking. Certainly not looking like Julia Ormond.

I wouldn't have a problem with this if the story wasn't largely about Smilla's Greenlandicness. It's okay to cast an African-American Cordelia, as I saw in the Guthrie's production of "King Lear" several years back, because Cordelia's Britishness is so minimal as to be nonexistent. But Smilla is a Greenlander through and through. Was there really and truly no Greenlandic actress to be had? No Inuit at all? Is it a coincidence that they happened to replace someone who is, in the book, explicitly stated to be 5'2", with someone tall and willowy? I suppose I should expect this. I shouldn't even really notice at this point. But I do notice, and it annoys me.

Ah well. You know what? Karinas are useful to have around, even virtually speaking The most latest example of Karina's usefulness is that she got me thinking about Lupercalia, and now I'm writing a story about Lupercalia, too. Only mine really is about Lupercalia. Only in the future, in a different form.

(Digression of the moment -- I'll get back to talking about why Karina is useful, I promise, Philip. Lupercalia was a Roman festival to Pan. It was held on February 15, and it featured sacrifices of a dog and some goats. Then thongs were cut from the skin of the goats, and the youths who had been annointed for that purpose ran around the city whipping girls and women with the thongs, called februa, in order to make them fertile. You'll see this at the beginning of "Julius Caesar," where Caesar's wife Calpurnia is trying to be beaten with the februa because she has been barren for so long. Also various and sundry other traditional fertility festival stuff went on. Oh, and "februa" means "to purify." Now you know.)

Right, so. Karina. Useful. Yes. It's good to have generally supportive people around -- most of my friends and family fulfill that role. But they tend to trust my instincts, and thus they leave a lot of things to me. But when I say (in this journal), "Is this story idea crazy?", Karina is the one who writes to me to say, "Yes, it is, write it, write it! I want to read about the Lunar Epoxy!" (Or various other crazy things.) It's good to have someone who encourages the stuff on the fringes of my mind, the stuff that makes me hesitate and think, "Well, now, is that interesting?" Karina encourages the offbeat, the freewritten, the stuff that only one person in the world could ever write, in any form. And I do appreciate it.

I wish I wanted to write a short story soon. There are two children's or YA markets with theme deadlines coming up (I had totally forgotten about them when I was making my list!), and I'd like to have something to try for each of them. But I really really just want to work on the Not The Moose Book right now. The sympathetic Latvian manservant is helping my main character prepare for A Terrible But Voluntary Ordeal right now, and I'm not particularly interested in writing anything else. Maybe I'll just binge on NTMB stuff and see if I feel like doing anything short tomorrow.

Oh, one more thing: I was wondering if you-all like the plain list format in the Fiction and Bibliography and Nonfiction pages, or whether you'd enjoy a few notes on the story, when I wrote it, why, what for, and the significance of the pickle. Oh, sorry. Started channeling Arlo there. Anyway, if you have any opinions on plain vs. annotated lists there, please write to tell me.

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