To See the Antisemitism of Medieval Bestiaries, Look for the Owl

On March 24, 2020, I published my first piece for Aeon Magazine. I am genuinely happy about how this piece turned out. It might be my best piece of writing so far, if I may so myself. A big thank you to Pamela Weintraub, the editor who I worked with for helping me unlock it.

Enjoy!

To See the Antisemitism of Medieval Bestiaries, Look for the Owl.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The owl watches you from the raised seat on the medieval misericord in Norwich Cathedral in the east of England. Surrounding the owl are birds with feathers like the scales of a pangolin. The birds are focused on the owl. The owl pays them no mind.

The motif of this scene would have been familiar to the woodcarver who made it and to the abbey monks who leaned against it during the long hours of Mass. But the associations the people of the Middle Ages made when they saw the scene on the misericord seat were different from how we would interpret it today.

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

History and SFF: Big Data and The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

On January 24, 2020, Tordotcom published the third installation in the series History and SFF that I am writing for them. This time I talked about history, Big Data, and Malka Older’s amazing trilogy The Centenal Cycle. If you haven’t read those books yet, I highly recommend that you do. They are so good!

Enjoy!

History and SFF: Big Data and The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

Malka Older Infomocracy

My family’s first computer had a 41 MB hard drive. I saved my carefully crafted teenage observations of life on 1.5 MB floppy discs that never seemed to be filled to capacity. Two years later, I moved away to go to college. I brought with me a laptop computer with a 240 MB hard drive. I was a very proud owner of this technological marvel, even though I had no idea what to do with all that storage space. Since 2005, we have been living in the age of Web 2.0 and Big Data. Now, I download 240 MB of data every time I update the apps on my smartphone.

The exact origins of the term “Big Data” might be in dispute, but its meaning is clear. Big Data gets its name from the enormous amounts of digital information generated, collected, and stored every second.

Big Data includes all the data generated by users on the internet. As soon as you go online, internet providers, social media platforms, newspapers, stores, communication apps, and blog platforms trace your every move and store your data for later use or sale.

Malka Older’s novel Infomocracy, part one of The Centenal Cycle trilogy, presents one version of what a future dominated by Big Data might look like.

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

What Happens when Women Translate the Classics

On January 14, 2020, The Week published this article that I had written for them. I’m really happy that this idea found a place at The Week. It seems as if the readers of The Week were happy too, at least judging by the amount of shares and likes that this article received on Facebook and Twitter. Enjoy!

What Happens when Women Translate the Classics

What Happens When Women Translate the Classics | The Week.com | The Boomerang

“Tell me about a complicated man.” This first line of Emily Wilson’s translation of the Ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey raised a lot of eyebrows when it was published in 2017. The translation reinvigorated the interest in the story of Odysseus and his 10-year struggle to return home to his wife Penelope and their son Telemachos on the island of Ithaca, after having fought in the Trojan War. Wilson is so far the only woman to publish a translation of The Odyssey in English, a translation considered by many as groundbreaking.

Wilson might be the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English, but she’s not the first woman to translate an Ancient Greek text into a contemporary language. With her translation, Wilson joins the ranks of women who have broken gender barriers to give their voices to the Classics. Does the translator’s gender influence the interpretation of a text?

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Historical Sources and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

On December 17, 2019, I published part two of my ongoing series for Tor.com, History and SFF. This time I wrote about how N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to tell the story, and to contradict that same story, of her award winning trilogy The Broken Earth. Enjoy!

History and SFF: Historical Sources and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

History and SFF | Historical Sources and N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy | Tor.com | The Boomerang

History is the interpretation of the past based on written and recorded texts. These texts are known as historical sources and they are the sine qua non of history writing. Over the past centuries, techniques have developed for how to categorize, evaluate, and analyze historical sources. Being a historian means that you dedicate a substantial amount of your time mastering these techniques in order to make your interpretation of the past valid and reliable.

In The Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin uses historical sources to tell the history of The Stillness, a seismically overactive continent where human civilization is repeatedly destroyed through prolonged cataclysmic events known as Seasons.

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

What the Moomins Can Tell Us About Fighting Climate Despair

On November 29, 2019, I published the following piece for The Week. I honestly didn’t expect editor Jessica Hullinger to choose this topic out of the several pitches I sent her, because Moomins are a bit obscure in the US. But I am very happy that she saw the appeal in this alternative reading of the first two books about the Moomins that Tove Jansson ever wrote. Enjoy!

What the Moomins Can Tell Us About Fighting Climate Despair.

What the Moomins Can Tell Us about Fighting Climate Despair | The Week.com | The Boomerang

Climate change is real, no matter what some would have us believe. In this past summer’s heat wave over Europe, the Arctic region of Scandinavia experienced temperatures up to 101 degrees, while the ice cap of Greenland is melting at the rate projected for the year 2070. Meanwhile, Australia is experiencing yet another year of unprecedented drought, at the same time as the American Midwest has been fighting against the overflowing Mississippi River after too much rain. It is becoming increasingly clear that climate change is not a problem we will need to deal with sometime in the future. It is happening now.

Grappling with the magnitude of climate change causes what is known as climate despair, which is the overwhelming sense that…

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The Great Man Theory and Historical Change in SFF

On November 18, 2019, I published the following article on Tor.com. This article is Part 2 in the series I am writing for them called History and SFF. I am really happy about this post because I have wanted to write about how Wesley Chu uses history in his Tao trilogy ever since I first read it. The fact that Chu tweeted that he was happy with this article makes it even better.

The Great Man Theory and Historical Change in SFF.

The Great Man Theory and Historical Change in SFF | Tordcotcom | The Boomerang

The question of what factors drive historical change has intrigued historians from the very beginning, when the earliest scholars first turned their attention to studying and interpreting the past. To find the answer(s) to this key question, historians make use of social science theories. These theories help make sense of the inherent contradictions found in human behavior and human society.

For example, there is the theory…

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column

On October 15, 2019, Tor.com published the following post, announcing the launch of  the column I will be writing for them. I am really excited about this column. Not only because it’s about history and the historian’s craft, but because I have been wanting to work with Tor.com for a long time.

Enjoy!

History and SFF Storytelling: A New Monthly Column.

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Welcome to Tor.com’s new column on History and SFF!

My name is Erika Harlitz-Kern, and I will be your guide during the coming months in discussing the ways that history is used in fantasy and science fiction. But don’t worry—I won’t be dissecting your favorite story digging for historical inaccuracies and judging its entertainment value based on what I find… The purpose of this column is to take a look at how authors of SFF novels and novellas—with a focus on more recent works, published after the year 2000—use the tools of the trade of historians to tell their stories.

When any scholar does research, they use a set of discipline-specific tools to make…

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In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.