“Old Customs”

I’m smiling today. There’s a bounce in my step. You see, I sold a piece of fiction for the first time, making me — at last — a paid writer. It’s the first step down a road I want to keep walking, well past my days of open floor plan offices, conference rooms, and software project estimates (although arguably, those are my first paid works of fiction).

This one’s a short (2,000 word) piece for Unlikely Story‘s issue 12.5, “The Journal of Unlikely Observances.” It’s a themed issue around rites of spring, festivals of renewal, and role reversals. I hope you enjoy “Old Customs.”


SFF short fiction reviewer Charles Payseur has proposed drink pairings with selected stories from July, including this one. Read his review on Nerds Of a Feather: http://www.nerds-feather.com/2016/08/the-monthly-round-tasters-guide-to.html?m=1

Author’s End Notes (because I’m an author now)

(I humbly request, dear reader, that you read the story, linked above, first.)

The Indian holiday of Holi inspired “Old Customs,” in particular, the variant of Lathmar Holi, in which the women beat the men with sticks. Filmmaker Prashant Bhargava (a childhood friend, taken from us much too soon) did a study in footage and music of Holi, including the lathmar practice, in “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi.” What struck me in his images was how, under the color and exuberance, there seemed to bubble a real, visceral something that was looking for cathartic release. That was the seed of this story.

I never say “India” in this story, nor do I say “Holi.” It’s obviously about Holi, and is obviously set in India (I was thinking of Colaba, in Mumbai, during the hotel scene), but I wanted to give myself license to create a fictional history for this holiday. It was harder than I thought to grant myself that permission. Instead of imagining, I kept researching, checking the things I dreamed up against fact. I had no small amount of anxiety about misrepresenting a real cultural practice. Refraining from explicitly naming the festival Holi and setting the story in India helped me move past those hang-ups. It astonished me how much that helped.

On the topic of anxious sensitivity, I’m a man, writing about women, in circumstances where harassment and abuse are at the center. It wasn’t lost on me that I was writing about things I’m not especially qualified to write. When I did the fiction certificate program at Northwestern, a couple of our instructors encouraged us not to shy away from this. Writing is an exercise in empathy, and attempts — however imperfect or flawed — to empathize are valuable in themselves. So here, I’ve tried. And even if I’ve failed, I’ll try again.

“Old Customs” walks backwards through (fictional) history to reveal the history behind a myth. Pretty early in the writing, I was aware I was stealing from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. After all, each book in the series starts with the catechism:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.

Book 4, The Shadow Rising, even provided me with a structure for my story. But I spared the reader from having to journey to Rhuidean and walk through the glass columns to learn this history.

Image credit: India – Lathmar Holi Festival of Colors

From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

  • ecsis – the haunting sense of mystery infused into certain random details that beckons you to wonder how it ended up here at this point in time

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