R.B. Lemberg is joining us today to talk about their novel, The Four Profound Weaves. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Two transgender elders must learn to weave from Death in order to defeat an evil ruler–in the debut full-length work set in R. B. Lemberg’s award-winning queer fantasy Birdverse universe
The Surun’ nomads do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But aged Uiziya must find her aunt in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay. Among the Khana in the springflower city of Iyar, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter, as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.
As his past catches up, the nameless man must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya–while Uiziya must discover how to challenge the evil Ruler of Iyar, and to weave from deaths that matter.
In this breathtaking debut set in R. B. Lemberg’s beloved Birdverse, The Four Profound Weaves offers a timeless chronicle of claiming one’s identity in a hostile world.
About the Birdverse: The Birdverse is the creation of fantasy author R. B. Lemberg. It is a complex, culturally diverse world, with a range of LGBTQIA characters and different family configurations. Named after its deity, Bird, Birdverse shorter works have been nominated the Nebula, Hugo, Tiptree award, and Rhysling awards. The Four Profound Weaves is the first full-length work set in the Birdverse.
What’s R.B.’s favorite bit?
R. B. LEMBERG
One of the things I love so much about The Four Profound Weaves is all the Jewish-inspired worldbuilding. I talked about it a little in other interviews – the Khana people are basically secondary-world Jews. My worldbuilding about the Khana people is inspired by both ancient and medieval diasporic Jewish history, but it’s not a direct copy of any specific period or community. Instead, some overarching ideas and some details make it into the story in a way which is, I hope, inobtrusive. Hebrew roots are at the base of the Old Khana language which the men learn, and these roots are recognizable in some of the words and the names that the Khana people use. We learn that the Khana people are diasporic – they are exiles from Keshet, and there are Khana quarters in other places around the landmass. In the city of Iyar, the Khana people live in their own quarter, separated from the outside world by walls and a gate guarded by the Raw Guards (the meaning of the Hebrew word golem, is raw, amorphous, unformed). In one of my WIPs, which happens in a different corner of the landmass, the Khana quarter has been forcibly opened by a hostile government, and their Raw Guards removed or destroyed. The quarters help define a culture and protect the Khana people from hostile outsiders – but they also constrain the people both physically and metaphorically. I also love how there’s more than one possible afterlife in Birdverse – just like in Jewish culture, where there are multiple beliefs about what happens or can happen after we die, and that is certainly reflected in the novella.
Song is a major mystical power of the Khana men – there are many parallels for this in Jewish sources – while the Khana women are not allowed to sing (the Jewish Orthodox inspiration for this was kol isha, or a prohibition against women singing before men or in mixed company). Women are active in trade and are the outward-facing members of the Khana community. They are physically and magically powerful, alluding to the powerful women of Jewish history who provided for their families while men were supposed to immerse themselves in their studies.
There are some pretty neat Easter eggs in the book, too. For example, this bit includes my translation of the words of the Traveler’s Prayer (Tfilat haDerech):
The Khana men sang it, so the legend went, on our great peregrination north to Iyar. Powerful women formed an outer ring. Blessed by the goddess Bird, these women protected the men and the children from enemies and ambush and wild beasts, from all disasters which, raging, come into the world.
I don’t want to spoiler and explain every tiny bit of Jewish worldbuilding in Birdverse. There is a lot of it in there. It’s bit funny and also quite sad that some people have told me “but Birdverse is not explicitly Jewish.” I imagine peeling a gigantic label from a jar of Manischewitz brand gefilte fish and sticking it on the book for greater clarity. A jar of Manischewitz gefilte is a very American thing. But not every Jewish inspiration must be American, or even immediately recognizable to Americans — in other words, not every Jewish book needs to be signaled as Jewish via a commercially produced shtikl of gefilte. I love Yiddish, but Yiddish itself does not exist in Birdverse, because there is no parallel to Western European Jewish history in Birdverse. Khanishti is the “modern” Khana language which people speak in the Khana quarter – formed from Old Khana roots and a non-Khana vernacular, much like Yiddish or Ladino and other languages of Jewish diasporic history – but there is no Yiddish in Birdverse, and so the word gefilte cannot exist there either. Jewish history is very long, diverse in almost every way imaginable, geographically expansive. America is not the center of it, and my Birdverse worldbuilding looks elsewhere for its inspiration.
I wanted, of course, to remark upon the long history of queerness and transness within Jewish culture – both the existence and importance of queer and trans Jewish people through our long history, and the difficulties and unspeakability of queerness and transness, the hidden nature of many Jewish queer texts. I am always thinking of Shlomo Ibn Gvirol, the 11-th century Andalusian Jewish philosopher and one of my favorite poets of the so-called Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain, who wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic. Ibn Gvirol wrote many poems with queer content, but he is only now beginning to be studied through a queer lens. I think about him and his work a lot. I made the Khana culture more permissive on the axis of queerness – among Khana women, queerness and polyamorous arrangements are the norm; but they have not made room for trans people. Many other cultures in Birdverse have a much more accepting and embracing view of transness. As the book progresses, we learn that trans people are not unknown among the Khana people either – it’s just not something which is speakable.
Imagining the Khana culture allowed me to think about and express thoughts about my own journey, my own life, my scholarship, and my experiences a queer and nonbinary Jewish immigrant always struggling for language and voice.
R. B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their stories and poems have appeared in Lightspeed Magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, and many other venues. R.B.’s work has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and other awards. You can find more of their work on their Patreon (patreon.com/rblemberg) and a full bio at rblemberg.net.