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Gillian Polack on 'Cultural Baggage'

Story Matrices is out April 5, 2022.

Pre-orders will open February 22, 2022.

Order online on our website or in all the usual places.

Watch the YouTube Launch here, from March 24, 2022.

"We all carry around a lot of culture. It can be a burden. It can be a joy. Most of us have no idea, however, how much we carry, nor how it shapes our lives. I’ve been exploring it for decades, first as a Medieval historian and, currently, how it is encoded and encapsulated in our fiction.

I used to talk all the time about ‘cultural baggage’. It was the simplest way of describing the quantity of cultural assumptions and artefacts that we all carry.

A moment ago I wrote that most of us have no idea how much we carry or how operates in our lives, but the truth is that some people have no idea that they even have a culture. Some of us (especially those of us from minority backgrounds) are constantly made aware of our culture and can explain it to anyone who asks. When someone asked me “What does kosher mean?” or “How is Australian English different to American English?” I can give quick and clear answers, because I’ve been asked those things so many times. Some folks, who come from very mainstream backgrounds have never been asked to explain. Once, when I was in a panel at a science fiction convention and we were talking about culture, someone stood up at the back of the room and stated, very clearly, “I have no culture.” She said this in English with an Australian accent, two simple indications that she was not, actually culture-free.

I listen to what people tell me. When this woman (among others) told me, “I have no culture” I started questioning what I meant by ‘baggage.’ I initially explored this by asked other fiction writers to write stories about cultural baggage. The anthology that resulted [link:] helped me emerge from my own assumptions. I realised that how we tell stories and what we put in our stories was critical. I began really questioning what writers do when they design the world of the novel and how we can describe this.

I wanted tools so that I could explain clearly such apparently provocative statements as “There is no such thing as politically neutral fiction.” ‘Whitewashing’ is clearly not politically neutral, but leaving whole ethnic or religious groups (and in the case of Jewish people, ethnic and religious groups) out of historical novels in regions happens far too often. I suspect that many writers don’t know the questions to ask and don’t have the tools to research outside popular parameters.

I’ve been researching this for over a decade, and felt wildly triumphant when, at conferences, people said “This makes sense” and wanted to see the book. I wrote the book during the bushfires and finished it during lockdown, and it’s Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

It’s not the end of my research. It’s a fixed point where more people can enter into the conversation. The book is a launch pad for discussion."

About Gillian Polack:

Dr Gillian Polack is a Jewish-Australian science fiction and fantasy writer, researcher and editor and is the winner of the 2020 A Bertram Chandler Award. Her 2019 novel The Year of the Fruit Cake won the 2020 Ditmar for best novel and was shortlisted for best SF novel in the Aurealis Awards. She wrote the first Australian Jewish fantasy novel (The Wizardry of Jewish Women).

Gillian is a Medievalist/ethnohistorian, currently working on how novels transmit culture. Her work on how writers use history in their fiction (History and Fiction) was shortlisted for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review.

Discover Gillian's blog here, and follow her on Twitter, @GillianPolack.

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