Domestic Details

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In this newsletter:
*** Travel Plans
*** News & Current projects
*** Cool Things Friends Do: "Geist" Review
*** Domestic Details

Travel Plans

My travel plans for Europe are now beginning to take shape. I will be arriving in London Heathrow on Tuesday, 31 May, and spend a few days in London before heading up north to visit friends in the (so I am told) idyllic and little-tourist-frequented county of Rutland. From there, according to the current plan, I'll visit some of the sights.

I've set my heart on seeing Yorkshire, and I've been toying with the idea of either going up to Edinburgh, or sideways to Cardiff, or perhaps even both. But realistically – between London, Rutland and Yorkshire, I think I am already in for eight days of non stop excitement.

More importantly, there will be one of those extra rare opportunities to hear and see me perform on the harp! The Tolkien Shop in Leiden, Netherlands, is celebrating their tenth anniversary this year. Seeing that I will be practically passing through, en route from London to Germany, I suggested that I could come by and do a thing.

The suggestion was enthusiastically received, a date was set, a harp to borrow was found, and voilá: The Tolkien Shop and Asni the Harper are proud to present, Asni the Harper live at the Tolkien Shop!

The date is Saturday 11 June, from 2 pm (or 14 h, as they say in Holland). I will be performing a selection of medieval and somewhat more recent tunes. Of course I'll also be available to sign CDs, my "Fantastic Journeys" art prints, and the brand new 2012 Middle Earth New Zealand calendar. Come along if you're in the neighbourhood – it's your chance in a million!

I have also booked plane tickets for a weekend in Stockholm, to attend the European Science Fiction Convention – but it's also a great excuse to catch up with some very old and dear friends. Of course, Bremen will be a stop on the way – though a short one, this time – after the gig in Leiden, and before taking the plane to Stockholm.

Mostly, it looks like I'll be visiting a lot of old friends and get to meet their new (or not so new) kids. Since I jumped on Facebook a year and half ago, I've been getting back in touch with a whole lot of people I had lost contact with entirely. Most of them are musician friends from my study and working days. Those people used to be practically surrogate family, and I am really looking forward to seeing them and their offspring. Brugge will be one such blast from the past, by kind invitation from my friend and fellow harper Hannelore Devaere. And while I am at it, I thought I might spend an evening visiting old haunts in Utrecht. And bring a sketch pad, too.

The main occasion for this journey is my mother's 75th birthday in late June, and the second half of the trip will be hanging out with the family. Hopfully not all of it in Berlin! For admittedly, the thought of spending three weeks penned up in Siemensstadt makes me fear that I'll wind up eating people. The plan is to at least pay a visit to Torún, Poland, where my mother spent most of her childhood.

Other options are: a beach on the Baltic, a trip to the Spreewald, or a visit to the old Bavarian village – this was actually one of the fixed points on the agenda, until I found out a couple of weeks ago that my parents have put the flat up for sale again, and it may not be ours any more by the time I get there.

As always, I am happy to hear from people who would like to get in touch, and – time and budget allowing – will do my best to accomodate them if I can.



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News & Current Projects

A little while ago, I was asked if I might be interested in providing some illustrations for a collection of 20th century German fairy tales – with a view to producing an English translation. This was of course, extremely exciting, and at the same time, profoundly frightening. I hadn't quite expected to have my illustration ambitions put on the spot with something so closely resembling my idea of the Perfect Project, so early in the game.

I had a read, liked the stories a lot, found one which particularly inspired me, and started illustrating. Yeah right. Actually, I started procrastinating for a couple of months. I did get quite a bit of web programming done while I was in this creative procrastination phase, which is probably just as well.

The story I picked tells about a boy who was found floating in a basket down the river, and is brought up by a poor family of fisherfolk. Except for his foster sister, who is like a mother to him, the family is not too happy to have the extra mouth around, and they make him do all the hard work. One of his tasks is to fetch water from the river, even in the middle of winter. One moonlit night, when the river is entirely frozen, he sits by the waterhole and stares down longingly into the dark swirls, as is his habit. Suddenly, the face of a Wassermann* appears from beneath the waves …

The first task was to define which medium to use. At this point I finally "got" why everyone is telling me that if I am serious about doing this professionally, I need to concentrate on One Thing, which will then be My Thing. It's nothing to do with anyone's ability to master different media. But if someone asks me to do some illustrations for them, and I could be doing any of five different things, how do I know what type of work it is they are after? There. That's the rub.

After some emailing to and fro, I got an idea, and decided to settle for working in Illustrator. I've always meant to do more work with it, and to continue the series of vector animals I started a couple of years ago. Getting one's head around the software is more of a challenge than Photoshop, but I really love working with the program, and I've had a lot of positive comments about some of the vector work I've done so far – which has been, after all, only a handful of pieces.

Speaking of which: the Vector Fox has recently been featured on the Vulpes Libris Blog. I only found out by accident while doing a Google search, and it would have been nicer if they had emailed me and asked for permission — but hey, they have credited and linked me properly and after all, I feel it's quite an honour. Out of all the foxes they could have picked!

As to the fairy tales – wether or not this will wind up turning into a real project is still very much up in the air, and in a sense it's perhaps a bit early to talk about it – but the worst case scenario is that I'll have done a couple of illustrations showing off what I do best, worked in a style I've always meant to develop further, asked myself some pertinent questions, challenged myself to treat this as a professional assignment, and added some good stuff to my portfolio. As worst case scenarios go, I think I could live with that!

* "Wassermann" as in Germanic/Slavic male water spirit, not the syphillis test. Just sayin'.

My latest assignment for the London Art College course was an exercise in combining and modifying different reference images to create a new composition. To get myself in the mood for the German fairy tales, I decided to pick up the Erlkönig topic again, and elaborate.

I guess I went a bit overboard with the use of reference: instead of the three images that were specified in the assignment, I used about four different photos and as many of my own sketches. It was an opportunity to put the hands and eyes I sketched last month to good use. And hey, any excuse is good enough to draw another David Tennant face! I even managed to squeeze him in twice. ;)

I think I might revisit this image yet again – some of the fluidity of the first draft (posted below) got a bit lost in the final version, and I rather fancy doing this as a watercolour – there doesn't seem to be quite enough mist! But I am happy enough with this version to submit it for the assignment, and right now, that will have to be enough.

***

The Online Promotion workshops will run again at the Featherston Community Centre, from April 12 through to May 17, Tuesday nights from 7.30 to 8.30 pm, six sessions in total. Please contact me if you would like to book place! The cost is $ 15 per individual session, or $ 72 for all six sessions (this comes to $ 12 per session). Places must be booked and paid for in advance, the deadline for registration is 8 April.

Fellow Featherston artist Tania Williams will be offering a Creativity workshop at her beautiful Tuscan style home, starting on 3 April – have a look on her website to find out more!

Here is a thing I just found on DeviantArt, and I really need to pass it on: An essay called "A Social Experiment", written by an American high school student who went and bought a piece of muslim head gear, and wore it for a day. What she did, should be compulsory on every school curriculum. Or indeed for everyone who is blind to the existence of discrimination in all its forms and shapes. If you live in Germany, you could dress up as a Turkish person. If you live in New Zealand – or the Netherlands, that enlightened liberal society – you could try speaking with a German accent. Go experience it yourself. Then we can talk.



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Philippa Ballantine: Geist - cover art by Jason Chan Philippa Ballantine publicity photo Philippa Ballantine: Geist - cover art by Jason Chan (detail)

"Geist" cover artwork by Jason Chan *** photo of the author

Cool Things Friends Do: "Geist" by Philippa Ballantine

I don't know if it's been my ranting about Doctor Who what did it, or something else, but all of a sudden, I find myself reading quite a few things on behalf of fledgeling writers. A friend recently sent me the draft for her science fiction novel, another a couple of finished film scripts, which she is now looking to produce. These things aren't published, so I can't talk about them just yet. But the other day, I got my first ever proper review copy for-the-purpose-of-this-newsletter in the mail! I feel all grown up now.

Philippa Ballantine is a writer from Wellington. We hooked up on Facebook via a mutual friend (strangely enough, neither a local nor an online acquaintance, but a former fellow early music student! Proof that Everything is Connected). I just missed out on a chance to meet her in person – she recently relocated to the United States, where she feels (accurately, I suppose) the conditions for a budding writer of speculative fiction are more favourable.

Her first novel "Geist" was published last year by Penguin books in the UK & Commonwealth territories, and Ace books in the USA. It is a moody tale of disillusionment, betrayal, loyalty, fated love, and spirits of the Undead, — set in a world controlled by an "Order" of Deacons, Presbyters and Abbots, whose task it is to defend their fellow human beings from the evil influence of the "Geists", spirits who attack, invade and possess the living.

To this end, an "Active" and a "Sensitive" Deacon team up to form a pair: one does the seeing and listening, the other does the fighting. This is a professional relationship which requires an enormous amount of trust, since it opens the partners to some degree to the thoughts, perceptions and emotions of the other.

Active Deacon Sorcha Faris, an experienced senior member of the Order, is teamed up with a young Sensitive just out of school, when her regular partner is wounded in a Geist attack. Both are sent on a mission to an outlying abbey in a remote village — and this is when it turns out that nothing is as they had thought.

The story is firmly placed within the supernatural-fantasy-with-a-dash-of horror genre, and does not pretend to be more than that. It features all the staples one should expect — heroes with magic powers, a dashing pirate captain who is really a disowned prince, people acting weirdly in remote villages, strange discoveries in underground caves, rotting corpses, pl,enty of Geists, and the obligatory bit of bodice ripping. Plus a steampunk air ship thrown in for good measure!

With these staple elements, Philippa weaves a suspenseful tale, which was just unpredictable enough to keep me wanting to turn the page. And like any intelligent author, she pushes against the boundaries imposed by the genre. The fact that the spirit-fighting, tough-talking, cigar smoking heroine will end up in bed with the dashing pirate captain at one stage might have been taken for granted, but what is more interesting — and lovingly drawn — is her relationship with her younger and less experienced "Sensitive" — who in his turn, makes doe-eyed love to a frail pretty girl, who is not at all what she seems at first sight. I can't think of a lot of books, in any genre, which focus on a purely professional relationship between an older and more experienced woman, and a younger man who is her apprentice or junior partner. And as it turns out, this is the relationship that the protagonist chooses to fight for, in the end.

Where Philippa excells, though, is in the creation of mood. Her Deacons, Abbeys, and Geists, her desolate landscapes and remote villages give the story a distinctly gothic feel, which goes well with the themes of betrayal and disillusionment which are central to the plot. Not to mention the final showdown, where the author boldly borrows from that most ancient of horror classics, the Apocalypse of St John. So it turns out that her choice of setting, with its allusions to medieval Christian culture, was not accidental at all!

It seems to me that the author might just be putting her light under a bushel basket, when she confines herself to this type of genre literature. But hey, one's got to start somewhere — I'll be watching out for her next book!



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Domestic Details

I am now officially another year older, and this year I've celebrated my birthday in style. On previous occasions, it's been a bit of a struggle to convince my Wellington friends that my garden is really *very* nice, and well worth a trip over the Rimutaka hills. But for my birthday party, I had a record turnout. And presents! A beautiful book about organic gardening, a rhododendron to plant out, some sweets and treats, and from overseas: a DVD from my brother, some handwoven cloth and a proper old family photo from my parents, and my very own Captain Jack Harkness action figure from my friend Julie! Weeee.

The rather eclectic bunch of people who ended up gathering in my backyard made for some animated conversations, and even the occasional expression of a difference of opinion! If you don't live in New Zealand, you might not appreciate how special this is. Consequently, from what I've heard, a good time was had by all.

I generally make food an incentive: I used to have a bit of a reputation for my cooking (and my beer drinking), back in Europe, and I am working on re-establishing it here. With all that freshly grown food from my backyard, I have a distinct advantage.

The pickling projects have turned out very satisfactory indeed. My home grown cucumbers have been turned into home made Saure Gurken – ah, the sour taste of childhood! I've made a vow that next year, I will try to grow at least three times as many. For the Sauerkraut, I caved in and bought the cabbage (during the cheap and plentiful season). For the first time in my life, I can appreciate what it is that makes people rave about the stuff.

The apple tree has delivered fully on the promise of abundance it has made since spring. I've been collecting green apples knocked down by the wind for a couple of months now, to use in my cooking, and to cook into a nice tart apple sauce. But now the fruit are ripe, and there seems to be no end of it.

After several year's failed attempts to grow more than a handful of my own tomatoes, this year I achieved a state of having more than I could eat, for a couple of weeks when they all came ripe all at once (I am still getting used to this feature of backyard economy). Unfortunately I have failed to document them, so I can't boast with an image. But, having grown up on the infamous Dutch Tomato (aka the fourth aggregate state of water), I can tell you, it was worth all the effort it took.

The green beans have been indefatigable in providing me with meal after meal, and this week, it has started raining walnuts. The neighbourhood seems to think they co-own that tree – the other day I had to chase off some kids and tell them firmly to keep their hands off my nuts. But despite those depredations, it is already a bountiful crop, and there is more to come. I am having thoughts of booking myself a stall at next month's Masterton farmer's market, and hawk my nuts, apple sauce and artwork. Plus, I still got some of the fabled elderblossom cordial in the freezer.

I even had peaches! Five peaches. And one plum! But such peaches and plum they were. I think next year I should probably try to find out a few things about how to coax fruit trees into growing fruit. At least, this year I was able to ascertain that they are, indeed, a plum tree and a peach tree.

The other night, my phone rang. My phone hardly ever rings, so this was in and of itself a remarkable event, and especially an hour before midnight. It could only be one of two things – and it wasn't a wrong number, so it was my mother. She was all upset, and given the lateness of the hour, and the unusual status of the occurence, it took me a little moment to understand that no family disaster had occured. No, she'd been watching the news about Japan. And she really needed to talk.

I don't watch tv, so this most recent crop of disaster news has fairly breezed past me. And I firmly uphold that this is probably a good thing. I feel for the people affected by the quake and tsunami. But I see no point in getting myself into a state of acute depression, by allowing the media to bombard me with the images of death, despair and devastation all day long. This does not make one thing better for those affected. So why not focus on the things I can influence and change, rather than allowing myself to feel powerless about things I have absolutely no way to do anything about.

Besides, all that media noise when something big happens, drowns out all the stuff that goes on all the time, and some of it in our own backyard. Did you read that article I posted above, about the American girl who wore a Muslim hijab for a day? You really should read it, you know.

Some of what this girl experienced are common features of being discriminated against, no matter what particular group of outcasts you belong to – Muslim, Yew, German, black, native, gay, fat, disabled, unemployed and poorly dressed, or 40 year old woman. But the degree of suspicion and hostility she aroused, are a direct result of how certain things have been reported on tv.

Stories like that don't generally make the evening news. Things only become sexy for the tv when someone bombs a mosque. Or sticks 6 million muslims in a gas chamber. Wouldn't it be better to watch out for these things before they happen? Now there is something you *can* do.

And who the heck thought they should build a nuclear power station in an area regularly affected by earthquakes and tsunamis, in the middle of one of the planet's most densely populated areas?

I had my christening as a politically conscious person in the anti-nuclear movement in Germany in the early 1980's. At the time we were protesting against nuclear war heads being stationed on German soil – it was still the height of the Cold War – but then three years later, there was Chernobyl. Now we witness, again, the unwillingness of those responsible for the plant, to own up to what is really going on. Unless it is not so much unwillingness but inability – it seems that no one is quite sure what was *actually* happening with those reactors. And they couldn't exactly go and have a look. Frankly, this possibility is by far the more frightening of the two.

If the events in Japan should have shown anything, it is that trusting humans with a thing like nuclear power, is like giving your baby a razor blade to play with. Because a) the human brain is simply not evolved enough to be able to calculate all possibilities of what could go wrong. And b), even if someone did design the perfect system, someone else has to be responsible enough to maintain it. And people aren't. Let nothing go wrong for a little while, and people stop giving a damn. It's just all too much fuss! Ah, she'll be right. Don't be such a stuck-up pain in the neck. Relax!

If I sometimes loose sight of why exactly I chose to live in New Zealand, well, the fact that they aren't mad enough to build nuclear power stations, is definitely one point in favour. I will always fail to understand how anyone, for any reason, can brush these events off as a "necessary risk". Necessary for what? So that the rich people of this planet can continue with a lifestyle which wastes resources out of all proportion?

To get a sense of how these events have been affecting ordinary people – the domestic details of a grand disaster, away from the media hype – have a look at this blog. It came to me quite randomly, via a friend who posted it on Facebook, and I am sure it could have been a hundred blogs by a hundred different people, all with different experiences, but all experiencing the same. It might just help to restore a sense of proportion.

My love and respect to the people of Japan. Especially those workers who put their health and life on the line (and that of their future children and grandchildren), by staying and getting things under control. Those people are my definition of a hero.

For you, tomorrow I will spend the day peeling apples and cooking apple sauce, so that none of that precious gift will rot. Even though it is a lot of work, and it would be easier to buy it in the store. Because this is something I *can* do.

Arohanui, from Asni



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