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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

03 October 2007


Charles Gramlich blogged about resonance in his Razored Zen blog on September 26. He defined resonance as the “degree to which a name or a term evokes already existing associations in a person’s mind.” He suggested that words like “Freud,” “Jesus,” “Adolph,” and “steel” have mental weight that pack a punch for readers.

I came across another kind of resonance this week: resonance of situation.

The September 2007 issue of Locus contains an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay. (An excerpt can be found at He said that when he goes to countries or regions that have experienced political and cultural repression, such as Croatia, Poland, and Quebec, people ask whether his 1990 fantasy novel Tigana was based on their own history. In Korea, the novel is marketed as a political novel, not as fantasy.

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, but Tigana left little impression on me. In fact, I could not remember anything about it, so I reread it this past week to see why I reacted so differently from the Croatians et al.

The answer was clear: Tigana tells the story of a conquered land whose name has not only been changed but also erased from history, and its architecture has been reduced to rubble. No one who was not born in Tigana can speak its name or hear it pronounced. Many of those who weren’t slaughtered by the king who conquered them have fled to other regions. The plot follows a few Tiganians who are working to bring down the tyrant and revive Tigana.

The people of Croatia, Poland, and Quebec have experienced similar events; the people of the United States haven’t. The situation did not resonate with me when I read it a decade ago.

Ironically, that’s no longer true. After most of New Orleans was destroyed by the failure of the federal levees in 2005, some members of Congress suggested that New Orleans not be rebuilt, or be rebuilt elsewhere. The people of the Broadmoor neighborhood found a big green dot (representing a park) painted smack over Broadmoor on the first proposed rebuilding map. A diaspora of musicians took place, probably permanently changing New Orleans culture. Some of our historic buildings were destroyed or had to be torn down. I’ve had a small, bitter taste of what it means to have one’s political and cultural identity threatened with erasure. This time around, I’ll remember Tigana.


Charles Gramlich said...

Part of the beauty of resonance is that once you think about it you begin to see it everywhere. And I really like the concept because it keeps the focus on the reader rather than the writer. I have not read "Tigana" but it sounds worthwhile. I'll check it out.

Carleen Brice said...

I know you didn't mean it this way, but there are a lot of people in this country who know the experience of losing their land and their native language, even if it happened to long-ago ancestors.

As always, when you write about NO, you remind those of us who aren't there that Katrina is still happening. Thank you for that.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, without your previous blog post on resonance, I would not have caught the importance of Kay's comments in his Locus interview. Thanks for stopping by and adding your two cents.

CARLEEN, thanks for pointing out so gently and politely what a stupid sentence I wrote. As I was writing the entry, I was thinking about the Cajuns and how for much of the 20th century, the state of Louisiana tried to crush their culture and language and nearly succeeded. Yet it never entered my head that the U.S. had in fact tried to wipe out both African and indigenous cultures and practiced genocide on the people they took American land from. Shame on me.

Lisa said...

Wow. Carleen really expanded on an already profound concept. As Americans, I think we tend to view the world on a lot of levels. There is the way we view cultures in other countries and on other continents and then the awareness we do or don't have about cultural differences in our own back yards. I think we try to strike an odd balancing act where we say we celebrate diversity, but really what we want (speaking from my own plain old middle class white perspective) is for everyone to be happy and get along and forget our differences. People who are feeling the pain of oppression or racism or bias of any kind tend not to speak openly about it to "us", unless we're lucky enough and smart enough to find someone who will let us ask questions and who will give us honest answers.

Carleen Brice said...

No shame necessary, Shauna! I appreciated your post, and I appreciate your follow up here.

Shauna Roberts said...

CARLEEN, your comments reinforced for me one of the points Tigana makes, that the people who aren't suppressed just don't "get it" at the same gut level as the people who experience it personally. I can think of various possible reasons the human brain evolved to have this psychological response, but in today's multicultural world, it sure is maladaptive.

LISA, surveys in New Orleans support your views. When blacks/Creoles and whites are asked about the state of race relations in New Orleans, most blacks/Creoles say it is bad and most whites say it is good. I never understood that until a recent newspaper article about one such survey included comments from the participants.

When whites say that race relations are good, they talk about how whites and blacks get along well together as friends, co-workers, and neighbors and that strangers generally treat each other politely. In other words, they are talking about one-on-one interactions between blacks/Creoles and whites. In your words, " we want (speaking from my own plain old middle class white perspective) . . . everyone to be happy and get along and forget our differences."

When blacks/Creoles say that race relations are bad, they mention police abuse of black people, political disregard of black people, prejudice in hiring for jobs, lower wages for blacks, toxic waste in majority black neighborhoods, etc. In other words, they are talking about institutionalized and societal racism—and also about class issues, given that the city has a black majority, the city government has a black majority, and there are many black people on the police force.

I know you don't read much science fiction or fantasy, Lisa, but much of it deals overtly or obliquely with the hot-button issues of the day. Alien invasions back in the 1950s when people were worried about the Russians; issues of sex, class, race, ethnicity, and religion today for obvious reasons. When our problems are moved to another society and disguised, the reader doesn't automatically identify with her own groups. One has to evaluate positions and arguments on their merits instead of having a kneejerk response based on one's group identification, if that makes sense.

Lisa said...

That makes complete sense and thank you for the expanded explanation of the differences in perception that individuals and groups have. That's a tough one to surmount until it's really in your face. I think most intelligent people really want to see the truth and see what's in front of them, but we've been so conditioned to be cynical about everything we see and hear on the news and in the papers that I think we actually just don't see or process a lot of things. What is that called? There must be a name for that? Thank you so much for such a well thought out commentary.

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA, I'd be inclined to blame it partly on obligation overload. People have all sorts of responsibilitie: jobs, kids, infirm relatives, charity work, house and lawn work, jury duty, and on and on. Most people try to stay up to date on events by reading the paper or watching the news. And there are so many problems in the world we need to fix: global warming, starving babies in foreign countries, starving babies here in America, homeless people, people who can't get health insurance, the high cost of prescriptions, whales that beach themselves, dogfighting, refugees, our soldiers in Iraq, the calamity we've brought down on the Iraqis, etc. Even Bill Gates can't afford to cure all the problems. People have to pick and choose what causes to care about, and improving race relations is just one of thousands of causes people can take up to make the world a better place.

Do you agree?

Lisa said...

Abso-freaking-lutely. Well said.

Carleen Brice said...

What an interesting conversation your post has spawned! Thank you.

cs harris said...

Yes, I think the insular nature of the lives most Americans lead reduces our ability to empathize with many fiction themes. Is that why our modern fiction seems fixated on "end the world" thrillers--because they're the only ones that scare us? I always thought I had empathy, but after Katrina I found within me a new appreciation of what the people of Baghdad are suffering, what the millions of Germans expelled from eastern Europe suffered, the Palestinians, the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears--the list is endless--along with the humbling knowledge that my own trauma was only a pale version of what they'd faced. It's a good extension of Charles's concept of resonance.

Shauna Roberts said...

CANDICE, I had a similar experience. Pre-K, I fulfilled my obligation to the poor by contributing to homeless shelters, Second Harvest, and Habitat for Humanity. Now, for the first time in my life, I'm giving money to panhandlers.

Bernita said...

ALL of Kay's novels are well worth reading.