On Connections and Castanets


Sargent John Singer, “Spanish Dancer” (1879)

There are several aspects of flamenco that have bedeviled me since I first started studying the dance form a few years back. One of these is contratiempos. The other is the use of the castanets. Last week, I had the opportunity to tackle both in an intensive workshop with the Escuela de Flamenco Paulina Peralta in Costa Rica.

Contratiempos is a way of playing with the “off” beat of a melody. It’s tricky because our natural tendency is to gravitate toward the beat of a song, not to the “off” beat. Understanding contratiempos is closely tied to the use of the castanets since both are, fundamentally, about the rhythms of flamenco.

Early in the workshop our instructor Paulina Peralta shared a piece of wisdom that resonated with me. Roughly translated, it went something like this:

Right now, the castanets are not a part of you; they are something foreign, outside of yourself. In order to play the castanets, they have to become a part of you.

We don’t often think explicitly in these terms, though I expect anyone who has studied music with a passion understands what Doña Paulina was saying. We might think of musicians as having “mastery” over their instrument, but it’s also reasonable to say that the musician and the instrument are a single entity. Neither is complete without the other.

As things go in the long winding road of my mind, these reflections on the relationship between musician and instrument reminded me of an ongoing conversation we have in the context of science: the question of the investigator’s relationship to the subject of investigation.

Many feminist scholars have dedicated themselves to understanding “objectification” in science. By separating ourselves from the study subject, controlling and manipulating it, scientists seek to understand it. And by understanding it, we come to control it further.

This is not an inherent way of practicing science. In other words, it’s not the only way science can or is or should be done. Rather, objectification of the study subject is a result of a particular value of the dominant culture in which science has developed over the last 400 years.

By separating ourselves from the other (in this case, nature), we come to understand and control it.

How different this is from the proposition made by my flamenco teacher, that it is impossible to understand ‘the other’ until we let that ‘other’ become a part of us. Here, the idea of “control” is replaced by a principle of interaction. By becoming one with the castanets, understanding is reached and music is made.

Many feminist argue that the influx of women into science has to some extent altered the culture of science. As anecdotal evidence, I like to look at the history of my own field, ecology. In the 1960s, when ecology was dominated by men, competition was considered the single most important organizing force of ecosystems. As women began to enter the field, they brought new perspectives, new questions, and even new ways of asking the old questions.

Concurrent with this, we enjoyed an extraordinary expansion of our understanding of the natural world. By the time I began my graduate studies in the 1990s, the “hot topic” pendulum had swung from competition all the way to the other extreme, mutualism. At a recent conference, I saw a young woman ecologist point out that there are a variety of interactions now recognized as fundamentally important in shaping communities and ecosystems. Diversity of perspective has allowed us to better understand diversity itself.

My students from the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Program often come from cultures that emphasize connection & interaction over objectification & control. As a result, they may find themselves at odds with the acculturation process of science, sometimes for reasons they don’t quite understand. As mentors and coordinators, we try to encourage our students not only to conserve their cultural values, but to allow those values to influence the way they practice science. Our time with them is a brief moment in their lifelong path, but one that I hope has a positive and lasting impact. Not only on them, but on the scientific endeavor as a whole.

Connection and interaction are also important in the path to understanding. Who knows what we might discover, if we honor these values in all our endeavors?

I’m going to close today with something fun: the interpretation of La Boda de Luis Alonzo by Lucero Tena and her castanets. (And yes, these two have been making music together for a wee bit more than 10 hours…) Please take a moment to watch this; she is really a phenomenal musician. I know you will enjoy the show.

A Sabbatical Wish List


Purchasing tortillas and tamales in Heredia’s central market.

Well, it’s official. This week marks the start of classes at Avila University, and the beginning of my spring 2015 sabbatical.

The question I’ve heard most often over the past few weeks is: What do you plan to do for your sabbatical?

Truth be told, my number one priority is to follow my own rhythm. 2014 was an overcharged, overpacked year, and my body and mind need some attention. Exercise, rest, recuperation, on all levels emotional and physical.

That being said, I’ve set several professional and creative goals for the coming months. Here’s the master list:

Finish my third novel. Daughter of Aithne is so close to being done, it’d be kind of embarassing to come away from my sabbatical without being able to say I managed to send a completed manuscript to my editor. Right now I’m polishing the opening chapters with my writers group, while simultaneously drafting the final chapters (of which it looks like I have about 6-8 left). I’m still hopeful we’ll be able to get this novel out to readers by the end of the year. Rest assured, I will keep you posted.

Lay the ground work for an anthology that documents the first ten years of the Native American and Pacific Islander Research Experience (NAPIRE) Program. Those of you who have followed me for a while know about my long involvement with this initiative, dedicated to encouraging Native American and Pacific Islander students to pursue careers in field ecology. Program coordinator Barbara Dugelby and I plan to put together a volume that documents both scientific and cultural achievements of the program, with contributed chapters from past program participants, students and mentors. As part of this project, we are organizing a symposium for the annual meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, to be held this July in Hawaii.

Develop a proposal for a global health minor at Avila University.  After attending the Conference on Global Health in Latin America and the Caribbean last November, I came away with the idea that global health would be a great match for Avila University, with its strong tradition in social justice and its growing commitment to global and international studies. This semester, I would like to research global health offerings at comparable universities. Based on what I find, I will put together a plan for implementing a global health minor at Avila.

Translate Creatures of Light to Spanish. Not that I have a tremendous amount of confidence in my translation skills, but this Kindle short story is brief enough that I’d like to at least try my hand at making it available to Spanish language readers.

On a more personal note:

Quality time with my husband. Rafael and I be spending the sabbatical together in his home town of Heredia, where we lived for eight years before I accepted my current position at Avila. Words are inadequate to capture how much this means to me.

Hiking, camping, and related adventures. National parks, mountain retreats, and beaches are all on our wish list. We will be undertaking wilderness expeditions both in Costa Rica and in the United States, and you’ll hear all about it right here.

Flamenco in my free time. As it turns out, Costa Rica has a fair number of flamenco studios, and I intend to take advantage of them. The fun begins this week with an intensive workshop on castanets, taught by Paulina Peralta at the Centro de Artes Promenade.

Okay. Enough dreaming. Time to get to work. . .

The Joy of the Critique Circle

I’ve recently re-discovered The Next Big Writeran on-line work shop for aspiring and established authors of all genres.

I’ve never been all that fond of the name, but the platform has been very useful for me in terms of polishing and improving my work. Eolyn was workshopped in its entirety on tNBW, and multiple chapters of High Maga also received critiques there.

Sometime during the writing of High Maga, I drifted away from tNBW. I began working with some of my critique partners outside of the platform. Other valuable reviewers with whom I interacted at tNBW were called away by various life and publishing projects. There was a lull in the virtual writers hut, and new partners weren’t turning up to replace the ones who had moved on. In short, tNBW wasn’t offering a whole lot for me in the moment, so I signed off and sought other avenues for feedback on my writing.

Last November, as I was heading into the final stretch for this third novel, I received notification that tNBW had launched a new site. I stopped in to check it out, and was duly impressed. After taking advantage of a month-long free membership, I committed to the long haul by registering as a premium member.

As a writer, I thrive on two levels of critiques. One of these are the beta reads, when you send your completed manuscript to kind volunteers who are willing to slog through the whole thing and give you their honest opinion.

Before the beta read, I also like to have the chapter-by-chapter critique. Not everyone opts for this, but chapter-by-chapter works really well for me. As my reviewers progress through the book, their questions and criticisms help me to draw clearer connections between where a particular chapter is coming from, and where it is heading. I especially like it when reviewers say something I disagree with, because it forces me to think, to critically examine my own line of reasoning and make sure the story fits together the way I intend. And of course, if reviewers like the story, it always inspires me to continue.

A critique circle also gives one the opportunity to view other works in progress. I have read some great stories in my different critique circles, made greater still by the opportunity to banter with the author about characters and events as the novel progresses. In addition, as much as I learn from other people’s critical reviews of my work, I learn even more by critically reading and reviewing the works of others. For everyone, it is a win-win situation.

During my journey as a writer, I’ve participated in critique circles both on-line and in-person. I’ve gone from group reviews to one-on-one exchanges and back again to the group. Every step of the way, I’ve found my fellow writers’ feedback helpful. If I were to give just one piece of advice to aspiring writers, it would be this: Find a critique circle that works for you.


Some excellent posts have gone up these past couple of weeks on Heroines of FantasyMark Nelson started off the year with a thought-provoking reflection on the need to refocus our dialogue in the SFF community. Kim Vandervort followed up this week with some additional insights into the art of civility and the business of writing. Please take a moment to read them both, as I think they set an excellent tone for the year to come.

We also have two new book reviews, Guardian by Jo Anderton and Time Heist by Anthony Vicino.

The Importance of Heroism

Happy New Year!

I hope you had an enjoyable holiday season. I’m feeling rested and refreshed from a lovely time with family and friends. My husband and I were reunited after several months living in different countries. My brother came into town with his family, and my nephew was home from college. All in all, we had much to celebrate — and celebrate we did!

Now the season is fading, and the New Year getting under way. Many of my colleagues will be back in action at Avila University starting on Monday. I’m trying to decide when to take down the Christmas tree, and prepping many things for my upcoming spring sabbatical in Costa Rica. I expect to have much to share with you during 2015, and I look forward to your company along the way. 🙂

Over the holidays I continued reflecting on my favorite books of 2014. Rising above them all, as many of you probably remember, was Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al Rassan. Along the way I discovered that I’m not the only person who compares Kay to that other great story teller, George R.R. Martin.

When comparing two story-telling titans, who comes out on top really boils down to certain personal preferences. Both of these authors appeal to me because they write tales that communicate a sweeping expanse of history. They craft rich and complex cultures, plots packed with intrigue, and characters who are well-rounded and beautifully flawed.

Yet when all is said and done, as much as I admire Game of Thrones, my vote for the better story goes to The Lions of Al Rassan.

One element of Al Rassan that appeals to me is its treatment of heroism.

Heroism can have many definitions. The most inspiring kind of heroism, in my mind, is a sort of day-to-day heroism, in which ordinary persons rise above a landscape of human failures and cruelties to remind us of the best in all of us. This type of heroism is not necessarily accomplished by slaying a dragon or charging into battle. It’s accomplished through kindness and service given to others, sometimes at great personal risk.

Heroism is the capacity to reach across boundaries of culture and conflict toward a place of compassion and better understanding. On an individual level, it will rarely change the course of history in one fell swoop, but it almost invariably changes each of us as persons. It lights our way with hope and gives us companionship in the darkest of times.

One of the many things I’ve learned from Kay’s work is that I really really like to see this kind of heroism in my stories.

Westeros, as richly imagined as it is, has little patience for heroes or heroines of this sort. As one advances through A Song of Ice and Fire, it becomes increasingly clear that kindness will get the characters nowhere. The more vile the person is, the more likely he or she will win the game. Characters who begin with some sense of honor eventually learn they must set this aside in favor of ruthless cunning and a thirst for vengeance. They must do this or they, like Ned Stark, will perish. (I suppose I should mention at this point that my analysis is strictly limited to the novels as originally written; the HBO series has tinkered with the story, introducing plot lines and characters that soften this aspect of the saga.)

I know we live in a cruel world, and as a reader I never look for books that deny this. But we also live in a world of hope, in which there are countless small acts of heroism every day. I like to see this aspect of human nature celebrated in our fiction, just as much as I like to see the dark side exposed and dissected. For me, the greatest tales reflect the full range of human nature. Al Rassan is one of those great tales. It’s the kind of story telling that I aspire to.