K is for Kinship
They were somewhat related, Nkosa’s mother having been a servant in a house where Meoraq’s father had once stayed on a circuit. She claimed him for the sire, and even though she carried no scars to prove it, when the baby opened up male, Rasozul had paid for the boy’s placement at a training hall (or whatever passed for one in a city like Tothax). Of course, the woman had been swiftly married to one of her own caste, the man whose name Nkosa carried. Meoraq had known nothing of this until their first meeting, when Nkosa rather shyly asked if he was by chance related to Rasozul and the whole story had come out. Meoraq had seen no reason to query his father for confirmation. The Uyanes were Sheulek all the way back to the founding of the House; it was inevitable that he should find blood-kin. Really, it was a wonder he didn’t find more of them.—The Last Hour of Gann
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Arion walked nonchalantly up two rows of openly-staring horsemen and stood before the high table. “Hail, chieftain,” he said cheerfully. “Ho, Rhiannon. Where shall I stand?”
Tonka put his cup down. “You overstep yourself, traveler.”
And two hundred Farasai pulled spears.
But Arion very calmly helped himself to a trencher and pulled the Cerosan-sized chair made for Antilles over to the table. “I think not,” he said, sitting in it. “Hear my reasoning. Lady Taryn is thy named kin. Also, she is now married to my brother, who must, by point of that fact, also be kin. And as any kin of his must therefore be kin of yours, my feelings have been sore abused at being left to a traveler’s hospitalities. But no longer. I have decided to forgive you this oversight and come to share a kinsman’s meal.” —The Roads of Taryn MacTavish
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Faithful followers of this blog may already know that my parents fostered dozens of children for over thirty years. I may have been as old as ten before I even realized that the situation was an unusual one. Until then, I just sort of assumed that someday, I too would have to pack up a suitcase and go live with another family for a few days or months or years—a prospect I awaited with due sense of excitement and trepidation. Unknowingly enforcing this idea, my grandparents housed foreign exchange students for the nearby university. Every year, when we went to visit, a different “big kid” was living in their basement. Their last, the only one I remember well, was a talking stereotype of a Japanese schoolgirl. She was small and pretty and ridiculously cheerful, wore a uniform, giggled all the time and was wicked good at origami. All she needed was super-powers and/or an inappropriate relationship with a tentacle-beast and she could have had her own cartoon show.
I loved her. While the grown-ups were talking, I used to sit on the floor with her and tell stories while she folded paper. She spoke very little English. I spoke no Japanese. We had no trouble communicating that I recall. For the little time we had, we were family.
I told you that story to tell you this story: At a romance writer’s convention this past year, I attended a panel in which the hosts—all three very successful published authors as opposed to the roomful of indie poseurs they addressed—informed us that in order to establish a true author’s Voice, we had to write books along an overarching Theme. “What are your books about?” they asked. “What are you saying?”
‘I’m saying Buy my books,’ I thought, rather uncharitably, but then I thought about it and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I actually did have an overarching Theme in each of my books and it was Family.
Gosh, that annoyed me. Yeah, on the one hand, it was cool that I actually used a real authorial tool (without even noticing!), but I work hard to make all my worlds distinct from one another and I didn’t particularly want all my different races to have the same attitude about anything, much less my attitude. But okay, since I’ve already broadcast my feelings across nine books, I’ll go ahead and clarify my position in five words: Blood is thicker than water.
That’s an old, old saying and many of you might think it means the blood of your bloodline being a stronger bond than pretty much everything else. In fact, the blood of the original idiom referred to the blood spilled in battle, the trials endured together and victories achieved together, while the water referenced birthing waters. In short, being born to this or that person was dumb luck; your true brothers were the people you’d take into battle.
In Heat, I made my feelings about as clear as they could be by creating a world in which fostering was the norm. Because conception is so painful to the Jotan race, females are drafted to breed in a kind of sexy lottery. The children are packed off to institutions and adopted. My hero, Tagen Pahnee, never thinks about his biological parents—they are a complete non-issue to him—but feels a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to his adopted father’s family name. And would my villain, Kane, have grown up to be the same (delightfully) horrible person if he had not been raised by Uraktus E’Var? In Heat, it is nurture, not nature, that makes a family, which is what I firmly believe in real life.
However, as my sister so often reminds me, my opinion is not the only one (just the only valid one) and so, let’s talk about some different perspectives on what it means to be kin. I can’t possibly cover every variation that ever existed, so of course this list is going to be a short one, but I do hope you find the entries as interesting as I do.
In my opinion (see preceding paragraph), there is no better way to start this article (you can still start after 1000 words, right?) than with the monogamous nuclear family, consisting of two spouses, their children and occasionally some grandparents. I want to start with this model because I believe it’s familiar to most of us and also because it’s boring and I want to get it out of the way.
I should point out here that even in this, the staunchest oak of family trees, there can be a few interesting knots and gnarls. History has shown us that household authority can be patriarchal (man in charge) or matriarchal (woman in charge). Inheritance can also be patrilineal or matrilineal. In a few cases, there were patriarchal households with matrilineal inheritance laws—the husband had ultimate authority and could even kill his wife or children without retribution, but he could not inherit from his wife’s estate.
One could further branch out the concept of family on your world by factoring in a cultural acceptance of polygyny (having more than one wife), polyandry (having more than one husband) or just plain polygamy (a little of this, a little of that), or prune it back with consangueous marriages, for example, marrying one’s deceased brother’s wife—a practice which was once the mandatory duty of a surviving sibling, but in another time and place decried as incest. And what about incest? Many cultures have used it at one time or another to keep royal bloodlines pure, even while executing common saps for practicing it themselves. A thing of the past, you say? And yet it wasn’t too long ago at all that an unscrupulous fellow could adopt a wealthy young bud as his ward and then marry her when she blossomed. Not technically incest, maybe…but quite often he knew about that wealthy young thing because she was a shoot on the same family tree.
Branching out a bit more, we have the extended families, which begins with the same root group of grandparents, parents and children, but includes uncles, aunts, grand-uncles and –aunts, and as many degrees of cousin as you can count. The further back in history we go, the more we see this type being practiced when the family has something to lose—a throne, for example, or social status or cultural identity. The more extensive the family tree, the more relationships within the group tend to form their own hierarchies. Most of us can get behind the whole “respect-your-elders” thing—
—but imagine for a second having to live in the Chinese kinship structure, with seventeen separate determinants for who to respect and how. Or in a Australian Aboriginal moiety, which can acknowledge sixteen distinct skin groups, which in turn determines who you marry and who your kids will marry. At the opposite end of the complication spectrum (or maybe just so far beyond it that it only seems that way), consider traditional Hawaiian families, which are very extensive, yet lump members into categories based mainly on gender and generation—you would refer to all the women of your mother’s generation as “Mother” and all the children of your own generation as “Brother” or “Sister”.
There is so much more I’d love to touch on—ancestor worship, ghost marriages, generational reincarnation, concubines, blood feuds, adoption rituals, divorce through the ages—but rather than plant more ideas, I think instead I’d like to trim it down and leaf you with a snippet from Cottonwood that sums up my feelings on family perfectly:
I am you and you are me.
(And yeah, somewhere along the way, I started doing tree puns and instead of stopping once I realized, I just went with it. I know, I know. I’m a beech.)