Monday, February 4, 2008


In a long and thoughtful entry to last Friday's blog entry, Hannah's Dad, among several other things, says:

iii) near the end of the book, after young wotsisname has become king, an Umberto Eco-like list of the many denizens of the city, including Ukranians and... Ruthenians. Who the hell talks about Ruthenians? No one but Avram Davidson surely? Looking in the Avram Davidson treasury I find it mentioned in... the introduction by Michael Swanwick. Who is married to one.

Yes, absolutely right, I am fascinated by the strange plight of Rutheno-Americans, who seem to have almost entirely lost all sense of their ethnicity. Irish-Americans, among whom I count myself, are the exact opposite. We remember more about our history and native land than probably actually existed, and it's a great source of strength for us. Exactly how bad does your history have to be for an entire people to jettison it wholesale?

So there's a hard grain of mystery behind my decision to include Ruthenians among such mythological creatures as vodniks, milchdicks, clabbernappers, and igosha. And it was, of course, a nod to my wife, Marianne Porter (in some circles best known as "the M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts"), that the very next category in the list was laboratory inspectors -- which was the position she held two promotions ago.

All that explication for one word! You can cram a lot of hidden stuff into a novel when you write as slowly as I do.

I also wrote the following short-short for The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, originally published in the late, lamented Sci Fiction and then in book format by PS Publishing:


Land of Our Fathers

Ah, Ruthenia! Has any land been ever so lost as thee? In America the Irish gather in bars to drink and grow maudlin about a land they've never seen. The Germans wax eloquent about the Rhine and about poets whose work they can only read in translation. African-Americans, whose history has been so thoroughly obliterated that not one out of ten knows from what land or tribe his ancestors came, hold a deep and abiding love for the continent of Africa.

But where are the Ruthenians? What history was theirs?

I met a Ruthenian-American girl in a bar who told me: "In Ruthenia of old, my ancestors greeted the dawn with one long blast from a great bronze horn. They scorned print and saddles as things that made men weak. A sprig of aspen summoned them to war. They rode bareback into battle.

"My Ruthenian ancestors drank fermented mare's milk and a mushroom wine so strong that outlanders could not finish even the first flagon. The men wore gold rings at the tips of their beards and mustaches. The women wore silver rings braided into their hair. In winter, they took baths in the snow. In summer, they fought knife-duels blindfolded and with their left hands bound together. It was considered a great disgrace for both opponents to survive a duel.

"In Ruthenia, the hunters could run fleeter than horses, pass through a bramble thicket without making a noise, and follow the day-old track of a salmon through a lake. The women wove cloth as light as silk and as strong as denim in patterns that dazzled the eye. When a garment was finished, it was held up for admiration, and if the admiration was less than its maker thought it deserved, she flung it in the fire.

"In Ruthenia, all the children were happy.

"It was the custom in Old Ruthenia that when a girl came of age, she would bathe naked in a mountain pool, and offer herself in marriage to the first man who came along. But in practice her father and brothers guarded the way to the pool with swords, and let through only that man who had already won her heart. Our national epic begins with a scoundrel who kills father and brothers and lover in order to marry a woman who is a symbol of our land, and ends with the death of that villain at the hands of his own children."

"Is this really true?" I asked her.

She finished her drink, and said, "Probably not. But it's a nice thing to think, isn't it?"

for Marianne


HANNAH'S DAD said...

Something I should have said in my earlier post - the story you introduce in the Avram Davidson Treasury, _The Slovo Stove_ is about the best thing I've ever read about ethnicity and absorbtion. It's a great example of the power of sf/f to really engage with a metaphor and make it work. Go Avram!

Michael Swanwick said...

Chris, I couldn't agree with you more. I think "The Slovo Stove" belongs on anybody's list of major American short fiction.

And to anybody who stumbles across this comment: THE AVRAM DAVIDSON TREASURY contains many stories that are equally good. The man was astonishing. One of the great short fiction writers of the Twentieth Century.