This December, the wonderful people at Night Shade Books are hosting a holiday countdown, encompassing a wide variety of articles by Night Shade authors, giveaways, and excerpts around the blogosphere. Today is the third day in the countdown, and we have been given the honor to host not only an exclusive excerpt from Infidel, but a guest blog by its author, Kameron Hurley, as well.
Hurley is the author of The Bel Dame Apocrypha, a trilogy that blends elements of steampunk (or bugpunk, as she calls it), science fiction, and fantasy into an enthralling, character-driven story of war. Her first two novels, God’s War and Infidel, came out this year, with the third novel, Rapture, forthcoming. Additionally, she is not only an author of fiction, but an articulate blogger who’s not afraid to share her opinions and genuinely has something to say. Today, Hurley shares with us a moving personal story of war and intolerance that provided inspiration for her books.
If you wish to read more from Kameron Hurley, check out our interview with her earlier this year, or take a look at her interesting personal blog. And don’t forget to follow Night Shade Books on Twitter for other great updates during their holiday countdown.
Stories From Another Country
When I was growing up, the holidays meant family gatherings over rich food slathered in buttery sauces and familiar stories of life during wartime in another country.
My grandmother grew up in Nazi-occupied France, and met my grandfather, an American GI, during the liberation. Her father was part of the French resistance, and one of her most nail-biting stories was that of the evening when two members of the Gestapo showed up at her door asking questions about her father.
To understand exactly what this meant to my grandmother’s family, you have to understand how the Nazis operated in conquered countries. The stories of Nazis killing ten locals for every Nazi soldier killed weren’t just rumors. My grandmother remembers walking with some friends by the river one day and one of them finding a bag that turned out to contain a severed human leg – with a Nazi boot attached. They were so terrified of what the ramifications could be for their small town that they hurriedly tossed it back into the river. One dead Nazi meant ten dead friends.
So when the Gestapo invited themselves into my grandmother’s house to poke around, it wasn’t because they were looking to win over their hearts and minds. No, they were looking for reasons to torture and kill her father. Her family generally kept the radio tuned to the BBC – to hear her tell it, it was actually illegal to listen to the BBC in occupied France, as there were a lot of coded messages sent out on those channels to rebels. It was one of the reasons her father listened to it.
The first thing the Gestapo did when they walked in was turn on the radio. My grandmother, her mother, and sisters prepared for the worst.
But someone had changed the channel. It wasn’t tuned to the BBC.
Then they went looking for weapons. Her father kept a pistol in a drawer. When the men opened that drawer, the family prepared again for the worst.
But the gun wasn’t there.
The “visit” could have turned out far worse but for these fortunate misses.
Marrying a GI was my grandmother’s ticket out of a depressed, still-rebuilding, formally-conquered and now American-occupied country. She felt like she’d won the lottery, even though it was another seven years after she was married before he was finally posted stateside again.
I remember looking at my grandmother’s old passport from this period, and staring at this hopeful 20-something woman coming to America for the first time. Though my grandmother looked after me, my siblings, and my cousin for many years of our lives, she never taught us to speak French. We learned the curse words (merde, in particular) and endearments (mon petit chou, bijoux). But my grandmother didn’t want us to be French. She wanted us to be American, and she was always terribly self-conscious of her accent. Because I spent so much time with her in my early life, I didn’t even realize she had an accent until I was twelve or thirteen. I never knew what on earth she was talking about when she said “my accent” – I could understand her just fine.
But it wasn’t just war stories I soaked up over the years. A reader recently noted that in addition to bloody gobs of violence in my books, and an awareness of race, and gender dynamics, and all the other crap I pile in to create manic worlds, I also seemed to have an understanding of the immigrant experience – something you wouldn’t expect from a white, second-or-third generation American.
It’s funny, because of all the things I researched and sweated over and angsted about in writing God’s War and Infidel, my portrayal of how it felt to be an immigrant struggling in a new country – particularly when my characters go from a war-torn world to a more outwardly peaceful one in Infidel – wasn’t one of them. I didn’t even consciously think about it. I just wrote it.
Because though stories of wartime may have been the most dramatic and memorable stories from my holiday gatherings, there were also the small, everyday indignities that my grandmother faced here in this outwardly peaceful place. Yes, my grandmother was white, and could “pass” – until she opened her mouth.
She hated going to the doctor, because she insisted no one could understand her. She was often given the wrong medications, or told she was just old and overreacting to some pain or condition, and sent home. On occasion, when the doctors were really being assholes, my father would go with her to the appointments and speak to them on behalf of his mother in his terribly American English.
I remember my grandmother coming home one day, fuming because she thought a local gas station clerk had made fun of her. She was asking a question about her gas card, which of course, she still pronounced as a “carte” with her accent, and he kept asking her to repeat it, and grinning the whole time, like it was some game.
And I remember my grandmother’s meetings with “the French ladies,” a group of local women originally from France who got together every few weeks to commiserate about shared joys and frustrations. I remember my grandmother writing long and detailed letters in French to friends and family overseas. And despite her overwhelming love of America and everything it stood for, I know that she always felt like an outsider.
My grandmother passed away nearly two years ago now, but I am still writing about wartime, and the quiet struggles people face when trying to seamlessly rebuild their lives in another country. Because for all the big, dramatic, explosion-y heads-chopping-off terror of war, there are, more often, those quiet, personal battles we face as immigrants, as outcasts, as strangers from another country. And those stories are worth telling, too.
Because if even just one person understands what it’s like to be a stranger in another country, if just one person has a little more empathy from reading about what it’s like, well… if my grandmother’s doctors had shown more patience and compassion with her accent, maybe my grandmother would have gone into the doctor just a little bit sooner two years ago, before the septic shock that eventually killed her had set in.
I talk about war a lot, but it’s not our greatest enemy. No, it’s simply the end result of our collective intolerance. I write stories of occupying armies and atrocities – but there is no bloody good reason for those things to exist on anything but paper.
There are all sorts of reasons to check our fear and intolerance at the door this holiday season – and every day of our lives. We are not protecting ourselves when we belittle those we see as different. We’re destroying lives. We’re participating in making it possible to start a war. We enable the occupying armies. Every one of us.
It’s a tragic irony that a woman who had survived Nazi-occupied France, working class poverty, and the birth of five children was eventually done in by her refusal to be belittled and talked down to by yet another impatient American doctor.
Now she’s gone, and all I have left are her stories.
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