My Latest Sewing Project: Comforter / Mattress??? (Part 1)

Earlier this year, I got into sewing my own camping/backpacking gear, my biggest projects being my tarp, my quilt, and my net-tent which … I haven’t written a blog post about.

This is a picture of my right knee inside my net-tent on the first occasion I tried using it, at Sunol Backpacking Camp in Alameda County, California. I hope I will get around to writing a blog post about my net tent.

During my backpacking adventures, I got used to sleeping in a quilt which I had sewn myself. I found that it satisfies me in a way that store-bought bedding, even of the highest quality, does not.

Furthermore, I didn’t like the comforter which I had been using. Winter was coming, which meant that my comforter was going to become more important. And when I was thinking of my dream comforter, I tried to find something similar to what I wanted in online stores, and could not find it.

The obvious solution was to make my own comforter. That way, I would get the features I wanted *and* have the satisfaction of sleeping in homemade bedding even when I was out camping.

One of the important choices is insulation. Down can be an excellent insulation, but I’m vegan, so down was not an option for me. There are many forms of synthetic insulation available, and some of them are excellent (including Climashield Apex, which is what I used in my backpacking quilt) but at home I prefer to use bedding made from natural materials such as my organic cotton futon. In particular, I wanted my new comforter to be 100% biodegradable, because no matter how durable it is, it won’t last forever and will need to disposed of at some point in the future.

So, I had ruled out insulation made from animals and synthetics, and I’ve never heard of insulation made from fungi, protozoa, or bacteria, which meant I was looking for insulation made from plants. Cotton? Too heavy, lacking in loft, and moisture-absorbing. Bamboo? Not warm enough, and I’m suspicious of the chemicals used in bamboo processing. As I considered my options, the obvious choice was kapok. It is the plant-based insulation/sutffing which is most similar to down, it requires minimal processing, and since it grows on trees which don’t require herbicides or pesticides, its environmental impact is relatively low. Kapok does have to be shipped long distances from the tropical rainforests where it grows, but nothing is perfect.

Here is a picture of a bag of kapok fiber on top of my comforter-in progress (I had stuffed most, but not all, of the chambers at this point).

When I was designing my backpacking quilt, I learned a lot about the details of sewing insulated blankets (whether you call them comforters or quilts). Loose insulation (including kapok) needs to be divided into chambers, otherwise the insulation will not remain evenly distributed, and there will be major cold spots. The two major types of chambers are stitched chambers and baffle boxes. Stitched chambers are way, way easier to make, but will have cold spots (albeit much less severe than if there were no chambers whatsoever), and are less durable. Baffle boxes generally do not have cold spots, but are a royal pain in the *** to make. Furthermore, there are different ways to make baffle boxes, and the better types (i.e. the ones which provide better warmth with less insulation material and/or are more durable) are an even bigger royal pain in the *** to make. There is a (down) sleeping bag which is made in the United States which typically comes with a $600 retail price, yet many hikers swear it is the most awesome sleeping bag ever and worth every dollar. I strongly suspect that it is so bloody expensive because they invest a lot of effort in the baffles, and that is also why it is superior to other sleeping bags (not that I know from personal experience, since I’ve never used it).

I decided to go with a simple baffle box design – I did not need the most perfect comforter ever, but I wanted it to be a good comforter, and I figured it was worth putting in the extra effort for durability and to make sure there weren’t cold spots. Making baffle boxes is way more of an effort than I ever expected, it at least doubled, if not tripled, the time it took to sew the comforter, but I’m proud that I did it and I have no regrets.

Here is a picture of my comforter after I had attached all of the baffles, but before I started stuffing it with kapok. Of course, as I stuffed the chambers, I had to sew the baffles down.

I sewed the entire comforter with hemp thread. It’s biodegradable and very durable. All of the hemp ropes in the window sashes in my home is over a hundred years old, yet most of the ropes are still in good condition, so I hope the hemp thread can also last over a hundred years. The hemp thread I used is not machine-compatible, which means it was hand-sewn, though much of it would have been hand-sewn anyway because I have no idea how I would sew the baffles with a sewing machine.

The fabric of my new comforter is organic cotton sateen from India. I’d never worked with sateen before, but this fabric was awesome, since working on this comforter I’ve ordered more organic-cotton-sateen-from-India for future projects. I used cotton sateen because it was a fabric which I trusted not to leak kapok.

This comforter will not be washable (because of the kapok), so I also sewed a cover which can be thrown into washing machines when necessary. I decided to use organic linen, because it’s a really nice fabric which is durable and feels good and is anti-microbial/anti-fungal (i.e. it will not develop bad odors as quickly as cotton), and it has a lower environmental impact than even organic cotton. Unfortunately, organic linen ain’t cheap and, because of the low thread count, I suspect it would leak kapok (which is why the comforter itself is made from cotton sateen), but the linen makes for a wonderful cover.

No part of the comforter or cover contains buttons, snaps, or zippers, because those are not biodegradeable. I did sew in some loops and tie-outs so that the comforter would not shift around too much inside the cover. I’m considering adding a few more.

My functionally complete comforter, partially pulled out of the linen cover.

There were multiple interruptions in my work on this comforter (as in, I would go days or weeks without doing any work), and even when I was working on it, I would at most work on it for a few hours per day. Sewing the cover, even by hand, only took hours. In particular, I did a lot of work on this comforter during the days when San Francisco was getting all of the polluted air from the Camp Fire and I was spending more time indoors than usual. Since I was not going outside for walks as much as usual, it was nice to have a project to occupy my hands (I listened to audiobooks while sewing and stuffing).

So that is how I made the comforter. I ‘finished’ it about a week ago, though I am still considering adding a few extra touches to the cover. In Part 2 I will discuss how it turned out.

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Advice for Hosting the Carnival of Aces

This month I’m hosting the Carnival of Aces, which is my third time as a host. I’ve also submitted many blog posts to the carnival and interacted with many hosts. Thus, I think I know a few things about hosting, and have some advice to share.

1. Try to make sure you do not miss submissions. It has happened to me multiple times that I have submitted something to the carnival, and the hosts did not put in the round-up. Sometimes, when I point this out to them, they edit the round-up to put my submission back in, though this often means that not many people will read this submission since it was added after the round-up was posted. Sometimes, even after I contact the host multiple times, they still do not add the submission. This really sucks..

2. Have a draft round-up post ready at the beginning of the month, and add links to it every time you get a submission. This means that submissions are less likely to be omitted from the round-up (see #1). It also spreads out the work over the month so one does not have to write the round-up all at once at the end.

3. Most submissions are probably going to come at the end of the month. This truth has several implications. First of all, even if one follows the advice in #2, one will probably still have to write much of the round-up post at the end of the month. Second, if it’s the middle of the month, and if one has only gotten one submission, that does not necessarily mean that the participation is going to be low – it’s possible that the procrastinators will submit 5 things on the very last day, so keep your hopes up. Finally, this means that it’s a good idea to volunteer to host only if one is confident one will have sufficient spare time / internet access / etc. to manage the round-up at the end of the month (a lack of spare time is not much of a problem in the middle of the month).

4. Respond to submissions as soon as you receive them. For example, if you look at the call for submissions in this month, you will notice that I replied to everyone who made a submission through the comments within two days. This reassures people who have sent submissions that they have been received (in my experience, hosts which have promptly send confirmations have never left my submission out of the round-up post).

5. In the call for submissions, put in something like ‘if I have not confirmed your submission by X time, please re-submit.’ There was one incident in which someone submitted something to me, and I did not receive it. I don’t know what went wrong. Fortunately, a few days later they re-submitted, and the second time I did receive it. If they hadn’t re-submitted, their piece would not have appeared in the round-up. Of course, this advice only works when paired with #4.

6. General themes are more likely to work well, but specific themes can also work very well. One thing which struck me about the December 2013 Call for Submissions was this line “I’ve purposefully chosen a broad theme.” More people are more likely to be inspired to a broad theme, so, in terms of participation rates, it is the safer choice. On the other hand, the carnival which had the highest participation rate was “The Unassailable Asexual” which is a very specific concept. It seems that specific themes work really well when they are something that inspire a strong reaction in most ace people. An example of a very specific theme which had a very low participation rate was Aspergers and Asexuality. Not only was it very specific (which I actually ignored in my submission – I expanded it to all autistic people), it was something which most people in the ace community do not have much to say about. On the other hand, not all broad themes get high turnout either (example: “Pleasure”).

Some specific themes may get a low turnout just because of bad timing – for example, I think “Compulsory Sexuality” would have gotten a lot more submissions if it came out in July 2015 instead of July 2012. Likewise, the theme for next month’s Carnival of Aces (which I know about because, uh, I had to win an epic battle over have email correspondence with Next Step: Cake to figure out who was going to host which month) would have been inappropriate for December 2012, but I think it will work well for December 2018 (and no, I’m not telling you what the theme is because that would be a spoiler).

On the other hand, potential participation is not the only consideration for hosts, and there may be reasons to choose themes which may not have the highest turnout.

7. It is possible to use temporary email addresses to protect one’s email. In the past, I used a temporary email address so I could accept email submissions without making my real email address public. I did not do that this time because I barely won my epic battle with Next Step: Cake I discovered I was going to host the November 2018 carnival at the last minute and I did not want to delay posting the call for submissions any further.

8. But seriously, hosting the Carnival of Aces is not that hard. Personally, I find writing high quality submissions to the carnival to be more of an effort than hosting the carnival. Yes, being the host of a carnival is more of a responsibility, but the time/energy requirement is not particularly high, and it’s largely a matter of putting the round-up post together correctly.

As of the time this post is being published, there is no host yet for the January 2019 Carnival of Aces. If you’re interested in hosting a Carnival of Aces, this is a good time to volunteer.

Anyone else got advice for hosts of the Carnival of Aces?

The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 2)

Zhong Ling (He Meitian) and Duan Yu (Benny Chan) are buried alive in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997

In Part 1, I described the disunity of the plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (TLBB). This has not stopped it from being one of the most popular Chinese novels of the 20th century. So does the disunity of the plot help or hinder readers from liking the story?

First of all, even though the story lacks plot unity, it does have thematic unity. To quote Wikipedia:

The main thematic element of the novel concerns the complex, troubled relationships between the great multitude of characters from various empires and martial arts sects, and the inherent bond that underlies the struggles of each. The novel examines the cause and effect that forms and breaks these bonds on five uniquely corresponding levels: self, family, society, ethnic group, and country (dominion).

A lot of Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories are about forming and breaking various sorts of bonds (one could say that Duan Yu’s romantic entanglements with his sisters form and break bonds simultaneously). Perhaps plot unity does not matter as long as there is thematic unity.

Gao Hu as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

That description from Wikipedia seems to characterize TLBB as being a literary novel. And sure, it’s totally possible to interpret TLBB in a literary way. It’s also possible to interpret TLBB as a lurid pulp novel full of violence and sadism, all designed to shock yet entice the reader. A lot of it reads like a tabloid. Perhaps when there is enough titillating content to sustain interest (assuming that the reader hasn’t dropped the book in horror), readers care less about plot unity.

It is also possible to interpret TLBB as a comedy, which is how I personally view it (yes, there is a sick streak in my sense of humor). (I would rather not watch the TV adaptations of TLBB with other people because I don’t want them to see me laugh at, say, a woman who kidnaps children and kills them). (There is so much gratuitous horribleness in TLBB that if I didn’t laugh at it, I might be the one to drop the book in horror).

However, those are all possibilities for how TLBB might succeed in spite of plot disunity. Does the plot disunity increase the appeal of the story in any way? Maybe.

Liu Yifei as Wang Yuyan in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Tobias recommends limiting the number of main characters. Jin Yong totally ignores this guideline; someone tried to count the number of characters in TLBB and found there were over 200. Most of those are minor characters, but there are still plenty of main characters other than Duan Yu / Qiao Feng / Xuzhu, as well as many supporting characters who play a pivotal role at some point. In fact, those of you who understand Chinese know that the number ‘eight’ appears in the Chinese title of the story. That refers to the eight main characters, who each supposedly represent a type of Deva or Naga, just as each of the seven main characters in Seven Ways We Lie represents one of the seven deadly sins of Catholicism. Tobias says that too many main characters is bad because it’s not possible to develop enough of the connections between them. Well, maybe a 200-page novel can’t forge enough connections between eight main characters (though honestly, Seven Ways We Lie is about 300 pages long yet did a decent job with seven main characters), but TLBB is more than two thousand pages long.

There is a lot of overlap in the cast of characters between the three stories (for example, Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu are all supporting characters in each others’ stories). Thus, by having three stories in the same novel, the novel can use a large cast of characters more effectively than if it were split into three novels. When, say, supporting characters from Duan Yu’s story appears in Qiao Feng’s story, there is no need to establish who they are, the readers already know them.

Sharon Yeung as Mu Wanqing and Kent Tong as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It is satisfying to see how the seemingly separate stories of the three protagonists connect with each other. The family trees get pretty convoluted, not to mention all of the love polygons, or the student-teacher relationships, or the … friendship polygons? Is that a thing? Each time I revisit the story, I uncover some interesting relationship which escaped my notice before, which increases the re-readability/re-watchability of the story.

The disunity also makes it much easier to stash Chekhov’s Guns. A Chekhov’s Gun which is displayed in Xuzhu’s story might end up firing in Duan Yu’s story.

And the three stories help balance each other out.

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are… I hesitate to use the word ‘light’ considering some of the things which happen, but they are… ‘amusing’? For example, Duan Yu’s potentially incestuous relationships are generally treated in a tongue-in-cheek manner, not as something unspeakably horrible. If Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories were separated out into separate stories, they would be among Jin Yong’s ‘lighter’ novels, like Ode to Gallantry.

Felix Wong as Qiao Feng in one of the few parts of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997 where Qiao Feng is actually happy.

By contrast, Qiao Feng’s story is a real downer. One bad thing happens to him, then something worse happens to him, usually something he neither deserves nor has much control over. There are a few points where things seem to get better for him, and he starts feeling hopeful – which means his hopes can totally be dashed again. Even though he shares the novel with Duan Yu and Xuzhu, TLBB is still the most tragic (or tragicomic) of Jin Yong’s novels because Qiao Feng is in it, and if his story was placed in a separate novel, it would be too much. I wouldn’t want to read that novel.

(Actually, I don’t think I would like Xuzhu’s story as a separate novel either, but that’s mainly because I don’t care for stories about celibate vegetarian teetotalers being coerced into drinking alcohol, eating meat, and having sex).

Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories are lacking in gravitas, while Qiao Feng has too much, so it evens out. One can see this in the casting decisions for the TV adaptations. Generally, the directors/producers will choose actors with pretty faces to play Duan Yu and Xuzhu, whereas an actor who has prestige for his acting ability will be cast as Qiao Feng. The classic example of this is Felix Wong – in 1982, when he was mainly seen as a young actor with a cute face, he was cast as Xuzhu. In 1997, when he was known as one of Hong Kong’s most respected actors, he was cast as Qiao Feng.

Felix Wong as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982

It looks like my view is ‘disunity helps rather than hinders the plot of TLBB’. But this may be more of an exception to Tobias’ guidelines rather than a refutation. After all, even in really long novels (which I am familiar with), this type of plot disunity is not the norm, and it’s usually spit in two rather than three parallel storylines (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with the dual protagonists Prince Andrei Bolkonsky / Pierre Bezukhov, and Anna Karenina, with Anna Karenina / Kostya Lëvin, come to mind). I think that, even in a really long novel, a disunited plot is probably more difficult to use successfully than a united plot.

The Disunited Plot of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Part 1)

The copy of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils which I read in Taiwan looked exactly like this. You can see that this edition is 10 volumes long.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the book 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias claims that any story plot can be summarized by a single question. This is certainly true of many stories, perhaps most stories, but the very first counterexample which came to mind was Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (Tiān Lóng Bā Bù, from now on abbreviated as TLBB). I cannot think of any question which can summarize the whole plot, except for vague questions such as ‘will the protagonists find their place in the world?’ or ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ which are so vague that they tell you little about the story (honestly, I think the latter question is the more informative one). Contrast that to a specific question like ‘will Othello believe that Iago is telling the truth about his wife?’ which is what Tobias claims is the central question of Othello. And forget about “>Tobias’ plot patterns. Even Way Of Choices can be classified as having an ‘Underdog’ plot with lots of plot arcs nested within it, including a huge ‘Quest’ plot – I don’t think it’s possible to claim that TLBB has a single dominant plot pattern.

[General spoiler warning: this post will contain some spoilers for Demi-gods and Semi-Devils. I’ve edited out the huge spoilers, but this ain’t going to be spoiler-free]

Jimmy Lin as Duan Yu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 2003

Every summary I’ve seen of TLBB is split into three parts, one part for each protagonist (Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu). That is because it is very difficult to come up with a coherent plot summary without treating each protagonist separately. In fact, by the guidelines set out by Tobias, TLBB actually has three different plots (Tobias does not recommend having multiple plots in a single work of fiction).

Can I come up with a single question to summarize each protagonist’s story? Maybe.

I’m still not sure I can come up with a better question to sum up Duan Yu’s story than ‘what perverse nonsense will happen next?’ I mean, I suppose ‘who will Duan Yu marry and will he return home?’ covers most of his plot, but since that’s actually two questions I do not feel like that counts. And maybe instead of ‘who will Duan Yu marry?’ the question should be ‘will Duan Yu end up in an incestuous relationship with one of his sisters?’ because that is the point which is more interesting to many readers. Maybe the question is ‘will Duan Yu manage to come home without shaming his family by having incestuous relations with his sisters?’

Does Duan Yu’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? One could argue that it is an example of a ‘Maturation’ plot, but in my opinion it best fits the ‘Adventure’ pattern. Yes, Duan Yu does mature during the course of the story. He starts out as a happy-go-lucky, pacifist, naive, spoiled prince, and by the end he’s not even a prince anymore. But that is not the main focus of his plot. When I talk to people about TLBB, they don’t talk about how Duan Yu’s character changes, they talk about all of the wild shit that goes down during his travels. You can get a pretty good sense of what his travels are like just by looking at how his story begins – this is how it is portrayed in the TLBB 2003 (w/ Eng subs) (it’s much funnier in TLBB 1997 but there are no English subs).

Bryan Leung as Qiao Feng in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1982.

I find it much easier to sum up Qiao Feng’s plot in a single question “Will Qiao Feng find his place among the Song Chinese people or among the Khitan people?” He considers himself to be Song Chinese and loyal to Song China, yet they exile him and try to kill him (partially because they believe he committed some murders). The Khitan people of the Liao empire accept him, but they are at war with Song China, and being loyal to Liao empire would mean hurting the [Song Chinese] people he swore to protect.

Does Qiao Feng’s story fit into one of Tobias’ plot patterns? I think an argument could be made for ‘Quest’ or ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng seeks the truth about the past and present, and he seeks where he belongs (I lean towards ‘Discovery’ since Qiao Feng wants information more than he wants to change his life). He wants to know about his parents, and he also wants to find the real culprit behind the murders that he is accused of committing. (And no, even though Qiao Feng has some murders to ‘solve’, this is not a ‘Riddle’ plot because, when he learns who the real murderer is, it does not solve his problems at all).

Louis Fan as Xuzhu in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 1997.

And then there is Xuzhu and his story. The basic question for his plot, I think is ‘will Xuzhu ever go back to living as a monk?’ Or rather ‘how will Xuzhu adjust to the end of his monastic life?’ since at some point the reader figures out that he is never going back. He wants to be a monk, but he keeps on being coerced to break his monastic vows (yes, that is a picture of Xuzhu in this old post of mine). Even though he does not break his vows of entirely of his own free will, other characters consider them just as broken as if he had willfully made those choices. I think his story has what Tobias would call a ‘Transformation’ plot.

Those of you who are familiar with the story may be wondering why I’m not classifying Duan Yu and Xuzhu’s stories as ‘Discovery’ plots. The answer is simple: Qiao Feng knows early on his story that he has some mysteries to solve. By contrast, Duan Yu and Xuzhu are completely oblivious to the skeletons in their families’ closets (well, Duan Yu isn’t completely oblivious, he just does not know enough to be concerned), so their plots aren’t about them seeking the truth. When they do learn The Horrible Truth, it hits them like anvils falling from the sky – they had no idea what was coming.

I think it is pretty clear that TLBB does not have a unified plot, at least not in a way that Tobias would recognize. It cannot be summed up by a single question (unless that question is uselessly vague), nor can it be said to fit any single dominant plot pattern. Heck, one could split up Duan Yu, Qiao Feng, and Xuzhu’s stories, write them up as separate novels, and they would work at standalones (and come a lot closer to following Tobias’ guidelines for creating plots).

Yet does TLBB fail because of its disunited plot?

Every reader has their own opinion, but in terms of popularity, it is extremely successful. It is one of the most popular and widely read novels of the 20th century, and has been adapted for TV five times (and at least three of those adaptations were very popular), which is to say nothing of the other adaptations. I have also met quite a few people who say that TLBB is one of their favorite novels.

Does this story appeal to so many people in spite of its disunited plot… or because of its disunited plot? That is the question I will address in Part 2.

A Tribute to Jin Yong (1924-2018)

Imagine that J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, the founding editor-in-chief of one of the most important English-language newspapers, and George Lucas all died on the same day, at the same second, and how people in the English-speaking world would react. Because the equivalent of that happened in the Chinese-speaking world on October 30, 2018, when Louis Cha Leung-yung, known by the pen name ‘Jin Yong’, died.

One of the many illustrations which comes with Jin Yong’s stories.

But I’m not going to make this about Jin Yong’s impact on the culture of the Chinese-speaking world (and the cultures of much of Southeast Asia) because, if you are familiar with Chinese-speaking cultures or Southeast-Asian cultures, you already know, and if you aren’t familiar, you’ll think I’m exaggerating. Even the New York Times understates just how huge his cultural influence was (a couple of quibbles with the NYT article: I would actually credit Wang Dulu with raising wuxia to a literary level, and the new wave of wuxia stories which got started in the 1950s was launched by Liang Yusheng; both of these writers led the way for Jin Yong; however, I think Jin Yong was an excellent example of ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’). Instead, I’m going to talk about Jin Yong’s influence on me.

This pictures evoke a lot of nostalgia for me. They remind me of the experience of reading Jin Yong’s novels.

Most native Chinese speakers encounter the stories of Jin Yong at a young age, and, if they like reading, they start reading the novels as adolescents (or younger – I’ve seen 10-year-olds reading his novels). I was not exposed to his work until I was 22 years old, which feels really late. Furthermore, during that initial encounter, my Chinese was really, really bad, certainly not enough to follow the plot. And yet, even through that haze of bad Chinese (it was ~my~ Chinese which was bad, Jin Yong wrote better Chinese than the vast majority of educated native speakers), I could sense that there was a great story if only I could understand it.

There were two illustrators who made the in-book pictures for the official editions of the novels, but for some reason, only the work of this illustrator really stays with me and evokes the feelings of Jin Yong’s stories, the other illustrator’s pictures do nothing for me.

The very first book of solid prose I read in Chinese was Jin Yong’s Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn (Legend of the Eagle-Shooting Heroes), though it usually referred to in English as Legend of the Condor Heroes (yes, I wrote about the new English translation). I was living in a second-tier city in Taiwan which, aside from the sex trade, Hollywood movies, and Southeast Asian movies, offered very few entertainment options for people who were not fluent in Chinese, so I found lots of time to study. I first read the comic book adaptation (it is so much easier to figure out what the heck is going on when there are pictures), and then, once I knew the story, I dared to read the actual novel. Reading my first book in Chinese was like opening a door – before, I could not read Chinese, or I could only ‘read’ Chinese in a limited sense, but after I finished that book, I really felt like I could read Chinese.

Imaging staring at this picture ehn taking a break from plodding through dense Chinese prose you barely understand.

The first book of solid prose I read in Chinese *without* knowing what was going to happen was the sequel, Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ, i.e. that novel I keep on mentioning in this blog. If Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn is where I opened the door, then Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ is where I walked through the door.

And wow, what a door. I figured there would be a big reward for learning Chinese (otherwise I would not have put so much effort into studying), but I was not sure what that reward would actually be. I had no idea, before I started studying Chinese, that novels like the novels of Jin Yong existed. It was mind-blowing.

Actually, the illustrations were a useful preview for what might happen in the following chapter as I was improving my Chinese.

One could even say that, in a sense, Jin Yong was my Chinese teacher. I learned a lot of Chinese by reading his stories. For example, I probably learned the phrase ‘qīng​ chū ​yú ​lán’ from his books. They also taught me a lot about Chinese culture.

His novels have occupied more of my headspace than any other writer – than any other artist – during my 20s. I never expected that any single storyteller would so capture my fancy. Thru Jin Yong, I discovered the wuxia genre, and yes, I came to love the works of other wuxia novelists, but it all started with Jin Yong.

When I wrote a fanfic novel a couple of years ago, even though it was based on something which was totally not Jin Yong, I felt a lot of Jin Yong coming through in my writing. In fact, I felt such a strong Jin Yong influence in my fanfic novel, that I sometimes had to pinch myself, and ask myself whether I was actually writing a Jin Yong fanfic in disguise. I suspect that, if I ever write another novel, fanfic or original, in any genre, there is going to be a heavy Jin Yong influence.

Even when I was confident in my Chinese reading skills, I would still look ahead at the illustrations of future chapters for a taste of what lay ahead. For example, I was wondering quite a few chapters in advance what role a blond European woman was going to play in the story (she’s Princess Sophia Alekseyevna, the half-sister of Peter the Great of Russia).

If you’ve read my blog for a long time (of have gone on a binge-read of the archives), you can find plenty of evidence of how much my headspace the stories of Jin Yong have occupied. I even have tried to explain what makes his stories so wonderful, though that is, at best, a very incomplete explanation. When I started this blog, I did not think I would end up writing so many posts about his works, especially not 5+ years after I read them for the first time. In fact, before Jin Yong died, I had already been planning to write yet another blog post about one of his novels (that post will be posted in less than a week).

I don’t like all of Jin Yong’s stories, but his better novels are amazing.

I actually did not upload any of these illustrations specifically for this post, I simply looked through which of the illustrations I had already posted on this blog for other posts.

If you are not familiar with any of Jin Yong’s stories, but are interested in experiencing them, here are my suggestions. If you prefer reading, I will point you to the new English translation of Shè Diāo Yīngxióng Zhuàn. If you prefer to watch TV shows, I will point you to the Sword Stained with Royal Blood 2007. It’s not one of Jin Yong’s better stories, but it’s one of the best TV adaptations available with English subtitles (you can get it on DVD with English subs; it’s also easy to find online versions with English subs).

I’m actually envious of the people who get to experience the works of Jin Yong for the first time. I benefited from not growing up in a culture where Jin Yong’s stories were super-popular because that meant the plot twists were not spoiled for me, I got to have my first encounter with the plots when I was reading the original novels directly.

I love to watch music videos of Jin Yong songs (no, he was not a song composer, but his works have inspired many, many, many songs). They are an easy and quick way to give me the feels of reading his stories without sitting down and re-reading them. Even when I see MVs based on TV adaptations I have not seen, I can usually recognize most of the scenes because his stories stick out so vividly in the mind. I’ve even written an entire blog post about one of these songsObviously, these songs/videos aren’t going to evoke that type of nostalgia in people who don’t know the stories, but maybe something comes across anyways. Thus, I will end this post with links to a bunch of songs inspired by Jin Yong stories that I like.

“Jianghu Xiao” (The Jianghu Laughs) (Return of the Condor Heroes 2006) – One of the best Jin Yong songs, and with English subs!

“Up and Down a Challenging Road” (Demi-gods and Semi-devils 1982) (content note: depiction of suicide in video) – as I have said before, I feel this is one of the songs which best captures the spirit of Jin Yong’s stories.

“Cold Feelings, Hot Feelings” (Sword Stained with Royal Blood 1985) – I think this is an underrated Jin Yong theme song.

“A Laugh from the Blue Sea” (Swordsman 1990) – In The Smiling Proud Wanderer, there is a song called “The Smiling Proud Wanderer” which a) plays a pivotal role in the plot (which is why the novel takes its title from the song) and b) is the most beautiful song the characters have ever heard. This puts no pressure at all on the composers who have to write music for the many movie and TV adaptations of novwl (I also find it amusing to watch TV actors proclaim whatever the composer came up with to be the most beautiful music ever). This is generally considered to be the best attempt to compose the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song (which is why it was recycled as the opening theme for the 2017 adaptation). I also like State of Divinity 1996’s version of the “Smiling Proud Wanderer” song.

“Ode to Gallantry” (Ode to Gallantry 2016). I really like this song, and of the recent Jin Yong TV shows, this is the one I like best.

“On What Day Shall We Meet Again” (Return of the Condor Heroes 1983). Even though “Jianghu Xiao” is a better song, I feel this is the song which best captures the spirit of the story.

AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST….

“The Thousand Sorrows of Remembering Old Love” (song originally from Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983) – since this is a mourning song, it is the obvious choice for a tribute to the late Jin Yong (just as it is often used in tributes to Roman Tam and Barbara Yung). Indeed, this link goes to a video which was released days after Jin Yong’s death.

Though Jin Yong has died, this is not over. I am sure I will have many thoughts, and thus many things to say, about his stories for years to come.

Review: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

The book cover of Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Sara, it’s been forever since you’ve written a review of an ace fiction book.

It took me a while to feel like writing one again. Also, I had to start reading ace fiction books again to write more reviews.

What is this novel about?

Alice, a nineteen year old college student, is dumped by her girlfriend/dorm-mate Margot because Margot feels that Alice does not want to have sex with her (which is true, Alice was only consenting to sex with Margot to preserve their relationship). Alice knows she is asexual, but stays in the closet, and the way Margot dumped her reinforces her conviction not to tell people she’s ace. Then she meets her new co-worker, Takumi, and Alice has very strong feelings about him as soon as he meet him. Might some of those feelings be sexual attraction? Since Alice has definitely never experienced sexual attraction before, she does not know what the hell sexual attraction is supposed to feel like, how would she know? Meanwhile, her best friends, Feenie and Ryan, are going to get married, and Alice fears that as they become more of a couple they are pushing her away. And on top of all that, Alice’s parents and sister are pressuring her to declare her major and prepare to go to law school as soon as she finishes undergrad, and Alice totally does not want to do that.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this novel?

There is no on-page sex. There is discussion of Alice’s sexual history, and later a bit of Takumi’s sexual history, as well as references to Feenie and Ryan’s (off-page) sex life. A stranger sexually harasses Alice. There is little in the way of physical violence, but quite a bit of emotional violence.

Tell me more about this novel.

The novel has a particular writing style/tone. I’m not sure how to describe it, so I’ll just spam you with quotes:

Alice had had her first creepy moment, crowning herself the creepiest Creepy McCreeperton in existence.

Was it really anyone’s business that Alice didn’t feel sexual attraction when the rest of the world did? It was Alice’s secret. She could guard it like Smaug hoarding gold if she wanted to.

Willy Wonka could wrap her in plastic, market her, and sell her as a limited edition fool-flavored candy.

He grinned, but was also wringing his hands. “But that’s not all it is, right? You like me as a person, too?”
It took everything Alice had not to laugh at the universe’s perverse sense of humor. Her Personal Living God of Confusing Attraction, Takumi, wanted to know if she, Asexual Alice, liked him as a person.

You might want to strap in for this ride I like to call Not Black Enough to Be the Black Sheep of Black Excellence.

I’m on that rapid weight-loss diet called Starvation Because I Spent My Last Six Dollars on Laundry.

Throughout the book, I was struck by how much Alice is unlike me. It was like being immersed in the head of someone who has a very different worldview. It meant I did not get the ‘this so represents me’ feeling, on the other hand it was interesting, and was a reminder that not everybody thinks like me. For example, Alice doesn’t like exercise and loves sitting on the couch and binge-watching TV shows. I love going on walks and hikes, and while I can enjoy watching TV for a hour to an hour-and-a-half, beyond that I will get restless (unless I am physically ill).

Sara, I think you are like Alice in that you like to write essays about TV shows.

That was years ago.

Oh really?

Okay, fine, I still write essays about TV shows once in a while.

And you also like to eat [vegan] ice cream in winter, and you also don’t like jogging.

Hey, I’m not saying I’m completely unlike Alice. After all, we’re both female aces living in California.

And the fact that I get such a clear sense of who Alice is so that it is so easy for me to compare her to myself demonstrates that she is a very vividly written character.

The main plot seemed to be about Alice’s developing relationship with Takumi. While I was interested in Alice sorting out her feelings and whether or not she was experiencing sexual attraction, that was only in focus in the first part of the novel, and I was not so terribly interested in Alice’s actual relationship with Takumi. There was a sub-plot about Alice’s relationship with Feenie and Ryan, which was potentially much more interesting to me, except it was not fully developed. I think I would have found this story much more interesting if Alice’s relationship with Feenie and Ryan had been the main plot, and her relationship with Takumi had been the sub-plot.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this as an 8.

Alice’s experience with asexuality is very different from mine. That means I did not read this and think ‘aha, this is exactly how I feel as an ace!’ on the other hand it gave me a glimpse of a different way of experiencing asexuality. One obvious difference is that I’m aromantic and Alice is very biromantic. She has also previously had sex (though early in the novel she has decided to stop having sex) largely due to social pressure, whereas I have never had sex nor experienced direct pressure to have sex (I have experienced indirect pressure to have sex – such as pressure to go get a boyfriend – but I’ve never experienced a direct pressure to have sex, such as the way Margot pressured Alice).

Furthermore, though I experience aesthetic attraction, I don’t experience it nearly as strongly as Alice, or maybe it’s just not as personally important to me as it is the Alice.

Does the book make it clear that not all aces are like Alice i.e. that aromantic aces exist, that not all aces experience aesthetic attraction, some aces don’t like kissing, etc.?

The book vaguely mentions that not all aces are like Alice, and IIRC it briefly mentions that not all aces experience aesthetic attraction (or was that kissing), but nowhere does it state that aromantic aces exist.

That sucks, it’s bad ace rep if the book does not mention that some aces are not as into romance as Alice is.

You know what, I disagree with you. No, this novel does not acknowledge aromanticism, but I don’t think it’s on Alice and her story to represent all aces.

I’m not saying Alice needs to represent all aces, that’s impossible, I’m just saying it’s harmful if the book does not make it clear that not all aces want romance like Alice does. How hard would it be for the writer to add JUST A COUPLE SENTENCES which acknowledge that some aces are very different from Alice when it comes to romance and kissing and aesthetic attraction?

*sigh* I don’t think this book is obligated to do that. If this book existed in an environment where aromanticism were a widely known phenomenon, would you be complaining?

No, but that’s a hypothetical situation, this book might be the first time a reader is exposed to human asexuality, what if an aro ace who dislikes kissing who never had contact with the ace community read this book, maybe they would conclude they were not really ace because Alice is really into romance and kissing and they are not?

Again, I don’t think it’s fair to put that type of educational burden on a single book. The solution is to get more aromanticism in fiction, not to force every novel with an ace protagonist to do a full Asexuality 101. Especially since that gets tiresome for ace readers who have been through a lot of Asexuality 101.

I don’t think we’re going to come to an agreement on this. Let’s move on.

I really liked the part where Alice was processing and analyzing and hair-splitting her feelings towards Takumi to figure out if maybe it was sexual attraction. That was a very ace experience. Here’s a little tidbit of that:

“So when I saw Tak- I mean, the person, I thought [it was sexual attraction] at first. They were just exceptionally cute, but then I got really hot and was having trouble thinking and there was action happening down there and I’m confused about stuff now.”

“Did you want to have sex with this person?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” She sighed. No point in holding back now. “I’m still figuring out how that’s supposed to feel.”

“Allow me to rephrase: Did you explicitly think of sexual activity in response to seeing this person?”

“No. I mean, it wasn’t like I wanted to take him to the supply closet for quickie or something.”

“What about now? Would you like to have sex with them?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” she said.

This story is definitely an example of the “When Do I Tell Them I’m Ace” trope, since much of the tension in Alice and Takumi’s relationship is driven by Alice’s hesitation to tell Takumi that she is ace. I this this bit sums up her attitude:

“Last we spoke,” he began, “you were experiencing some anxiety and uncertainty regarding your sexuality.”

“Yeah, that’s still happening. Sort of. But not really … It’s like, my problem is everyone else. I’m not ashamed or uncertain or whatever. I’m ace. It’s cool. I just don’t want to be anybody’s poster child. I’m not made for the front lines. I’ll wither and cry under pressure, so it’s better if I keep it to myself for now.”

There is so much ace content in this novel that I cannot address all of it in this review, but I think I have succeeded in giving a general sense of how asexuality is depicted in this story.

Was this written by an ace?

I don’t know.

Sara, do you like this novel?

I guess? I enjoyed reading it. I appreciate that it explores some ace experiences, and it was good for me in the sense that it is not the kind of thing I would choose to read often, so it breaks up my reading habits. However, if it were not for my interest is seeing how asexuality is presented in fiction, this would not have been my cup of tea.

LOL, Sara, we all know that your cup of tea is a really long sword opera written in Chinese, like that one you mentioned in last week’s post.

Hey, I don’t like all long sword operas written in Chinese, and there are other types of novels which are my cup of tea, such as Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. And that novel was not just about swords, in fact swords didn’t become a major element in the story until more than a thousand pages into the book.

*rolls eyes* Sure, Sara.

A Carnival of Aces November 2018: the Carnival of Aces; Call for Submissions

This month I am hosting A Carnival of Aces, the monthly asexuality blog festival.

So, what’s the theme for this month’s Carnival of Aces?

The Carnival of Aces.

I know that this is a Carnival of Aces thing, but what’s the theme?

The Carnival of Aces.

Wait, the Carnival of Aces itself is the theme? Seriously?

Yep.

That is so meta.

It is very meta.

A Carnival of Aces has been running, with one hiatus, since May 2011. That’s quite a bit of history, and A Carnival of Aces has evolved over that time. This seems like a good time to look back, reflect, and then look forward.

Here are some prompts for inspiration:

– How has Carnival of Aces affected your writing?
– How has Carnival of Aces influenced the way you think about asexuality?
– How have the themes changed over time?
– What are other ways Carnival of Aces has changed over time?
– What types of themes do you think work better? What types of themes do you think work less well?
– Is it good to choose themes that (theoretically) any ace could respond to? Is it good to sometimes choose themes which focus on a specific group of aces, even if that means some aces will not be able to respond, in order to give that specific group more space?
– What ways has the Carnival of Aces ever disappointed you?
– What role does the Carnival of Aces play in the ace blogging community? In the online ace community? In the entire ace community?
– What is the experience of hosting Carnival of Aces like?
– What advice would you give prospective hosts of Carnival of Aces?
– Are there any changes you think may improve Carnival of Aces?
– What is it like to binge-read previous Carnival of Aces?

It is okay to submit something which is not a specific response to the above prompts, as long as it is about A Carnival of Aces.

You keep on switching between ‘A Carnival of Aces’, ‘The Carnival of Aces’, and ‘Carnival of Aces’. What’s up with that?

Maybe I don’t feel like being consistent.

How can we submit?

– Leave a comment here with a link
– I do not want to make my personal email public, but since I am now a contributor to the Asexual Agenda, submissions sent to the Asexual Agenda email address will reach me.
– I can host guest submissions on this blog.
– If I do not respond within 3 days, assume I did not get the submission, and re-submit.
– I will put out the round-up post on December 1st. I will continue to accept submissions until December 5th, and add them to the round-up post retroactively.

I look forward to your submissions!

UPDATE: Here is the round-up post.