Why We Exchange Gifts: a peep into the gift-horse’s mouth

By Trish Nicholson
Guest Post

Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift.    Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.

But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.

Author Bio:
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.


Licencia Creative Commons

A complete delight: “Inside the Crocodile – The Papua New Guinea Journals”

By Nora Vasconcelos


Much more than just a memoir or a travel journal, Inside the Crocodile is a wonderful read. From the very first page, Trish Nicholson catches the readers’ attention, taking them into a delightful journey.

The pages pass fast as curiosity increases. And this is because the author has shared her experiences while living and working in Papua New Guinea – which celerates its 40th Independence Anniversary this September 16th- with genuine openness, talking the same about the good and the bad or difficult days, in this country that became her home for five years, while implementing a development project with World Bank funding.

Trish Nicholson

The differences between her homeland, Scotland, and her new place, an island in the Pacific Ocean, were very big, but Trish arrived there with an open mind and the wish “to understand other ways of life.”

Dressed up in bilas for the Prime Minister’s visit.
Dressed up in bilas for the Prime Minister’s visit.

She was aware that she should have to accept “discomfort and uncertainty,” and she sure did it. As her time in the island passed by, she endured several episodes of sickness and incertitude. But she faced all those challenges with strong determination and the conviction that when the rest of the people believe that “yes usually meant probably not”, for her, it only meant that she just had to find another way.

Vaccinations at a health post
Vaccinations at a health post

Inspirational at all time, the book is also full of humorous anecdotes that occured to her either while trying to make her new office and house work with the things she had at hand or that some colleagues lend her, or while travelling around the country.

The rhythm of the story goes easy, creating vivid images of a country that has more than 800 hundred indigenous languages; a population composed by more than 7 million people, and which has managed to keep its own culture and traditions despite modernity, bureaucracy troubles, foreign influences, and globalization.

Approaching a landing strip at Tefalmin.
Approaching a landing strip at Tefalmin.

For most travellers, this island remains a mystery, or it’s seen as an exotic destination. And this is one of the wonders of The Papua New Guinea Journals, because it describes the country from the eyes of a visitor who took the time to get to know the people who live there, their problems, worries, traditions, hopes and dreams. And it’s also this truly humane side of the story told by Trish, that makes this book a remarkable moving story and that is able to open the readers’ eyes, minds and hearts, so that they can see the island and its inhabitants as a country worth knowing, and not just as another place to visit, or a short stop on their way to their next destination on a tour.

Trish completed more than 600 pages with her experiences while living in the island. From those memories, preserved in paper, she wrote her travelogue in a very dynamic way. Lively exclusive photos, that only can be seen in her book, give the readers a unique opportunity of seing with their eyes what they’ve already pictured in their heads, while reading Inside the Crocodile.

Travellers, antropologists, sociologist, aid and development workers, and of course book lovers will find in this book a refreashing and very pleasant source of inspiration.

* All photos courtesy of Trish Nicholson

Licencia Creative Commons

Want to write Nonfiction? Follow this guide

By Nora Vasconcelos

Writing Nonfiction

Have you ever felt lost while wandering into the writing jungle? Fear no more! Despite the topic you’ve chosen, the path can be clear and easy thanks to Trish Nicholson, author of Writing your Nonfiction Book.*

At the begining of her book, she presents a great example from literature that reflects some of the problems writers face. Recalling Charles Dickens David Copperfield, Trish refers to Mr. Dick who “has struggled for ten years to write his memorial”, however, by the end of this novel, about 20 years later, “he’s still struggling”. Regarding this, Trish says that it might be too late for Mr. Dick, but not for any other writer.

“The only route to a succesful book you can feel proud of -however it is published- is to produce the best possible manuscript you’re capable of writing. Achieving this level of satisfaction requieres commitment and hard work”, Trish writes in the introduction of her book.

The options for writing a nonfiction book are ample, from travelogues and guides, to educational and text books, memoirs, biographies, self-help and how-to books, as well as history texts.

This wide range gives people who want to write a nonfiction book the possibility to identify the best way to express their ideas. Once writers have a clear picture about the kind of book they want to produce, this Complete guide to becoming an author recommends to follow a series of steps.

Compiling a timeline is a very important step, the same as creating a chapter outline. This will give you a clear idea about how much time you are going to spend working on your book and in which way the content will be delivered.

Trish explains that other things are also important while starting a new book project, such as finding a writing space were you feel not only comfortable, but also where your mind can set to work. Of the same importance is setting a time to write. “If you wait for the ideal conditions you will never write a single word”, Trish says.

Other important aspects covered in this book are the ones related to the way the research is done, and the importance of “keeping track of your information and staying out of trouble”.

A grammar review is always useful and this book contains a very clear one. This can be helpful for everyone, not only for writers who want to embark a nonfition project, but also for creative writing students, journalists and English language learners.

Also, if you happened to feel stuck while working on your project, Trish offers very good advice on how to keep a good pace: “Remove the critic from your shoulder, reviewing and editing comes later”. And when that time comes, clear recommendations are made here as well.

As publishing is a constant idea writers have, a complete panorama of the publishing industry is presented in this book, which shows different options that authors have nowadays. But if publishing doesn’t come soon, don’t feel disappointed, as Trish says: “to have written a book, especially a well written book, is a notable achievement in it’s own right.”

One last piece of guidance from Trish shows different ways to promote books either taking advantage of social media or involving with your community.

By this way, from the begining to the end, Writing your Nonfiction Book is a supporting companion which will be there for you every step of the way.

*Also an ebook from your favourite supplier

Licencia Creative Commons

I'm part of Post A Week 2014

A world connected by words

Text by Nora Vasconcelos

Tree HousePhotos courtesy of Trish Nicholson

If you ever wonder if someone out there is reading what you write, the answer is Yes! Even though a big silence might surround you, all these words that you’re sending to the outer space, are echoing somewhere in the planet.

And this is when my good friend Trish Nicholson (@TrishaNicholson) comes in. About two years ago, or may be more, Trish and I met thanks to Twitter. Ever since, we’ve kept in touch, no matter the ocean in between.


Throughout this time, I’ve found in Trish a very nice loyal friend who’s supportive and caring towards her fellow writers.

Her blog Words in the Tree House (http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com/) is like actually being there, inside her tree house, built in a huge pine tree, overlooking a wetland and distant forested hills, having interesting conversations about her various trips, either to the Himalayas or the Philippines; the books she’s read such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and the ones she’s written, like Inside Stories for Writers and Readers.

Words of a child, words of a woman
Trish started writing when she was very young. Back then, she pretended to deliver stories about animals for a newspaper, although, she says, at that time, her writing was taken over by school work.

Once she finished her studies in anthropology, she spent a good deal of time travelling in 20 or more countries. “During those years my writing was for my personal journals, not for publication,” Trish says.

Most of her early trips were decided by her work in rural aid and development, so they were often in isolated parts of developing countries. Other travel was for research, in Asia and Australia.

A good place to start
By that time, she settled in New Zealand, and took advantage of the opportunities that the digital publishing industry was offering. It was then, when the idea of writing travelogues started.

She saw that Collca (http://www.collca.com/), an electronic publisher, focused its work on non-fiction short eBooks and Apps on a range of topics. “They wanted to start a BiteSize Travel series and I made a formal submission to them with a few ideas based on my own travelling. The result was my first two travelogues: Masks of the Moryons, and Journey in Bhutan”, Trish remembers.

According to her experience, small independent and digital publishers can be more flexible, “and the whole process is simpler and quicker. It is also easy to have colour photographs which would be too expensive in a print book”.

As Collca accepts direct submissions, she didn’t need an agent, so, for new authors, Digital publishing is a good place to start, Trish says.

Did you ever think that you could become a published author?
It wasn’t something I thought about or consciously aimed at in the early days. It just happened a step at a time: the published articles came first, then I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book; a publisher commissioned me to co-editor and revise a book on tourism, and another publisher accepted my submission of a book on management.

What has been your experience of working with Collca?
Mike Hyman at Collca works closely with me, discussing every aspect of the work including my views on titles and covers. We work on marketing together. And he is innovative, always open to new ideas – he accepted my study of human evolution and storytelling – From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters – as the first in a new popular science series. He doesn’t mind my writing in different genre. This is a freedom I really appreciate.

Her latest book
Trish has recently published her latest book, Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, where she explores the relationship between a reader and a writer when a story is read.

InsideStoriesPbookCover-web (1)

“I discuss inspiration, character, theme, voice etc. analysing 15 of my own stories to reveal insights into story elements. Although it is about creative writing and reading, it is not a how-to book, but more like a companion or an entertaining friend.”

How is this book different from the BiteSize ebook you published last February?
Inside Stories is a full-sized book, and is available as a paperback as well as an eBook, which gives readers more choice – some people like both. And there is a bonus, From Apes to Apps will be included in the print book.

The craft of writing
Rather than a strict routine, Trish has the habit of writing during the mornings after breakfast, stopping at any time when she feels tired, or keeping on, if the words flow especially well. Often, she edits or researches in the afternoon, and reads in the evening.

What kind of stories do you enjoy writing the most? Why?
I especially like writing flash fiction – very short stories of around 500-1000 words – because it has a tight focus on a particular issue, and there is a challenge to use just the right words and find a resolution in such a small space. The shorter ones take a lot of editing to get right, they are often more difficult to write than longer stories.

What story would you like to write at some point?
Although my stories are based in various locations – Texas, Scotland, England, New Zealand – they are all in Western cultures. I would like to write stories set in other cultures, in places I have travelled. My doctoral studies were in anthropology, so this is of particular interest to me.

Can you share some of your experiences as a blogger?
The two most important things I found in having a blog are, first: to be realistic about how often to post so that I could write good quality articles. I keep to the same standards as if I were submitting a piece for formal publication, and second: it is essential to use social media – I use Twitter – to relate to people and let them know the blog posts are there. I post every week – articles about travel and about writing, photo-essays, or reviews. It is a good discipline to have to write an interesting piece each week.

Around the world
Trish’s journeys to India, China, Peru, Bhutan, Tibet, Italy and Spain, have given her the opportunity to cultivate her interests in cultures, mountain trekking and old cities, enthusiasm that might as well take her one day to countries like Sri Lanka or Mexico.

However, her most recent idea for a book is focusing on a long travel narrative about the years she spent in Papua New Guinea. “It shares my adventures working with local people in isolated parts of West Sepik Province. This country has the most diverse cultures and challenging environments on earth, and it’s one of the last stands of wilderness, both beautiful and dangerous.”

Licencia Creative Commons