From the Archives: Fatherland

In every book I write I reach the point where I am so deep in the work that I have to stop writing blog posts and newsletters. I always hope to avoid it. That somehow I’ll be smarter, or faster, or more organized, or just more. This time I’ve managed to avoid hitting the wall for several months by cutting back to one post a month. But the time has come. For the next little while, I’m going to share blog posts from the past. (This one is from 2015.) I hope you enjoy an old favorite, or read a post that you missed when it first came out.

There will be new posts in March no matter what: we celebrate Women’s History Month hard here on the Margins. (I have some fascinating people lined up.)

*

If you dismiss history told in comic book graphic form* as the non-fiction equivalent of Classic Comics, you're missing out. At its best, graphic non-fiction uses visual elements to tell stories in new and powerful ways.**

In her graphic memoir, Fatherland: A Family History, Serbian-Canadian artist Nina Bunjevac tells the blood-soaked history of the former state of Yugoslavia through the lens of one family's story.

Fatherland centers on Bunjevac's father, whose involvement in a Canadian-based Serbian terrorist organization led her mother to flee with her daughters to Yugoslavia in 1975 and ended with his death in a bomb explosion. Moving back and forth in time and place, from modern Toronto to Yugoslavia during both the Nazi occupation and the Cold War, Bunjevac explores the steps that led to her father's extreme nationalism and its tragic consequences. Using a combination of strong lines, pointillism and cross-hatching that evokes the feeling of an old newspaper, she tells a story in which there are no heroes and every choice, personal or political, has traumatic consequences. (Bunjevac's mother is forced to make a classic "Sophie's choice": the only way she can take her daughters to Yugoslavia is to leave her son behind.) Both the country and Bunjevac's family are torn apart by the bitter divisions between Serbs and Croats, partisans and collaborators, royalists and communists.

Bunjevac makes no moral judgments about her family's choices. Instead she approaches their history from several viewpoints, introducing increasing complexity and moral ambiguity with each new layer. The only thing that is black and white in Fatherland is Bunjevac's exquisite and often grim illustrations.

*As opposed to what we call "comic book history" here at the Margins--stories that are culturally entrenched and often emotionally satisfying but untrue.

**At its worst, graphic non-fiction is garish and heavy-handed. But if we abandon entire genres of literature based only on the worst examples we'll have nothing left to read.

 

From the Archives: Word with a Past–Two Bits

In every book I write I reach the point where I am so deep in the work that I have to stop writing blog posts and newsletters. I always hope to avoid it. That somehow I’ll be smarter, or faster, or more organized, or just more. This time I’ve managed to avoid hitting the wall for several months by cutting back to one post a month. But the time has come. For the next little while, I’m going to share blog posts from the past. (This one is from 2013. Time flies.) I hope you enjoy an old favorite, or read a post that you missed when it first came out.

There will be new posts in March no matter what: we celebrate Women’s History Month hard here on the Margins. (I have some fascinating people lined up.)

One of the favorite cheers for my junior high school's football team went "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for our team stand up and holler." It made no sense to me, but neither did football. When the rest of the Trojan fans stood up and hollered, I stood up and hollered. When they said glumly in the stands, I sat. By high school, my best friends were all in marching band, I was therefore freed of my weekend football obligation, and I knew that "two bits" meant a quarter--I just didn't know why.

Turns out the phrase has its roots in the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the river of silver that flowed from the mines of Potosí to the royal coffers in Madrid. (1)

In 1497, their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella introduced a new coin into the global economy as part of a general currency reform. The peso (literally "weight") was a heavy silver coin that was worth eight reales.(2) In Spanish it became known as a peso de ocho(3); in English it was a "piece of eight".

The peso quickly became a global currency. It was relatively pure silver, it was uniform in size and weight, and it had one special characteristic: it could be divided like a pie into eight reales. In English, those reales became known as "bits". Two bits were a quarter of a peso. After the new American Congress based the weight of the American dollar on the peso in 1792(4), "two bits" also referred to a quarter of a dollar.

Now I need to figure out what "Two in ten, let's do it again" means.

(1)And flowed right back out again to pay for spices, textiles and other luxury goods in the India trade.

(2) The important word here is EIGHT, not reales. The story would be the same if it were eight goats, eight marbles, or eight football fans.

(3) For those of you who never had to count to ten in Spanish, ocho means EIGHT.

(4) Choosing to base American currency on the peso rather than the pound was a not-so-subtle way to spit in Great Britain's eye. The peso remained legal tender in the US until the 1850s.

From the Archives: Word With a Past-Silhouette

In every book I write I reach the point where I am so deep in the work that I have to stop writing blog posts and newsletters. I always hope to avoid it. That somehow I’ll be smarter, or faster, or more organized, or just more. This time I’ve managed to avoid hitting the wall for several months by cutting back to one post a month. But the time has come. For the next little while, I’m going to share blog posts from the past. (This one is from 2013. Time flies.) I hope you enjoy an old favorite, or read a post that you missed when it first came out.

There will be new posts in March no matter what: we celebrate Women’s History Month hard here on the Margins. (I have some fascinating people lined up.)

I'm poking around in the long eighteenth century these days and stumbling across lots of surprising tidbits.

Take silhouettes. I had long known that charming likenesses cut from black cardstock became a popular and affordable alternative to oil portraits in the mid-eighteenth century. To the extent that I thought about the word at all, I assumed it was the name of a clever scissors-wielding artist who started the new fashion.

Wrong.* The art form, originally called "shades" or "profiles", pre-dated the name.

Étienne de Silhouette was a French attorney with intellectual leanings and political ambitions. He wrote treatises on this and that, translated Alexander Pope into French, made friends with Madame Pompadour, and earned a name as a garçon fort savant** for a book he wrote on the English taxation system. That book would get him in trouble.

In 1759, halfway through the Seven Years War, he was appointed Controller-General of France. The war was expensive and Silhouette had the thankless job of balancing a budget with a shortfall of 217 million livres.*** To make things harder, more than sixty years of almost constant warfare, had left France with a shortage of metal money and a budget crippled by existing debt. Silhouette issued some long-term debts and cut some expenses, but he realized that the long term answer was raising tax income. He took the not-unreasonable position that the easiest people to raise money from were the people who had money--especially true in the Ancién Regime, where the nobility and the clergy were exempt from taxes. He took away their tax exemptions and cancelled a range of pensions, sinecures, and handouts. With the wealthy and powerful already in an uproar, he then instituted new taxes on luxury goods, from jewelry and carriages to servants and windows. The marquise du Deffand, writing to Voltaire, complained "they are not taxing the air we breathe, but apart from that, I can’t think of anything that's escaped."

Less than nine months after his appointment, Silhouette was out on his ear and the term à la Silhouette was applied to anything cheap, including the profile portraits known as shades.

* In more ways than one, it turned out. Evidently there were two schools of silhouette artists, cutters and painters. The things you find out when you follow a fact down a rabbit hole.

** Bright kid

***Roughly 459 billion dollars today ****

****Very roughly, since I had to work from livres to francs, then calculate it forward to 1800 and convert it into dollars before I could plug it into this currency converter.